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Lesson 27: Faithless Man, Faithful God (Genesis 12:10-13:4)

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One of the things I love about spring in the mountains is the call of the mountain chickadee. I have discovered that the chickadees here have a slightly different tune than the ones in California, although the other day as I was jogging in the woods near Buffalo Park, I heard one singing the California way! I first discovered the sound of the mountain chickadee the first few weeks I was a pastor. We had moved to the Southern California mountains in February, 1977. I was unsure of myself and of the whole idea of being in the pastorate. I had told the Lord that I would try it for two or three years and see where things were at. It was a big test of faith for me. It still is!

One beautiful day I was sitting outside reading some commentaries in preparation for my message when I heard the sound of the mountain chickadee. I had no idea what kind of bird would make that noise, but I expected it to be a large, or at least normal, sized bird. I followed the sound up to a tree and saw the tiny chickadee. It seemed incredible that such a tiny bird could make such a clear, loud call. As I stood there marveling at this wonderful creature, I thought of the Lord’s words about the Heavenly Father’s care for the little sparrow. It was as if the Lord was saying to me, “I take care of this little chickadee; I’ll take care of you.” So every spring when I hear the chickadee, I thank God for His faithfulness to me. Though I have faltered often in my faith, God has always been faithful.

I’m glad that the Bible is not a fairy tale, but a true-to-life book. If it were a fairy tale, we would read of heroes of the faith like Abraham, how they responded to God’s call and never stumbled after that. They always trusted God, they never sinned, they overcame every hardship. But I couldn’t relate to that, because that’s not how my walk with God has gone. But thankfully, the Bible is written honestly, to show the faults even of the greats, like Abraham.

Abram came from a pagan background, but he responded to God’s call. By faith he left his home in Ur and headed for Canaan. He got as far as Haran and stopped for a few years. Then the Lord called him again, and Abram moved out toward Canaan, not knowing exactly where he was going or what he would find when he got there. After he arrived, the Lord appeared to him and said, “To your descendants I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7).

But Canaan wasn’t a lush, uninhabited paradise, just waiting for Abram and his family to move in. The godless Canaanites were in the land (12:6). Also, there was a severe famine in the land (12:10), in the promised land! Abram had always lived in Ur and Haran, which are both on the banks of the Euphrates River. They never lacked for water. But now he sets out by faith to the land of promise, and the first thing he encounters is a severe famine. Can’t you hear the critics in his household grumbling, “So this is the land of promise, huh? Nice, really nice! Are you sure God told you to come here, Abram?”

To survive, Abram journeyed down to Egypt. There was nothing wrong, per se, with going to Egypt. On at least two occasions God directed His people to Egypt for temporary protection (Gen. 46:3; Matt. 2:13). The text says that he went to “sojourn,” not to settle, there. The problem was, there is no indication that Abram sought the Lord’s guidance in this situation. It never seemed to occur to him that God was sovereign over the famine and that he needed to seek His direction. Abram built altars in Canaan, but there were no altars built in Egypt. Instead, we find him scheming about how to protect himself from the Egyptians who might kill him and take his wife. He falls into a desperate situation where Pharaoh takes Sarai into his harem. At this point, God’s promise to make a great nation out of Abram and to give the land of Canaan to his descendants hangs by a thread, humanly speaking.

But shining through the whole story is God’s faithfulness. Even though Abram was faithless, God was faithful. A recurring theme begins here and runs throughout Genesis, where God’s promise to Abram (12:1-3) is threatened by someone’s sin. But in every case, God overrules man’s failure to bring about His sovereign purpose, to show us that God’s promises and purpose do not depend on fickle man, but on the faithful God (see John Sailhamer, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 2:116). So the lesson of the story is:

When we are faithless, God remains faithful in order to restore us to faith and to fulfill His purpose.

In 12:10-16 we see Abram’s faithlessness; in 12:17-20, God’s faithfulness in delivering Abram and Sarai; and, in 13:1-4, Abram’s restoration to faith in line with God’s purpose. There are some obvious parallels between this incident in Abram’s life and the nation Israel to whom Moses was writing. Both Abram and the nation Israel went down to Egypt because of a famine in the land (12:10; 47:13, 27). Abram feared that he, a man, would be killed and Sarai, a woman, would be spared (12:12); in Moses’ day, Pharaoh ordered the male babies killed and the females spared (Exod. 1:22). God sent plagues on Pharaoh to deliver both Abram and Israel (12:17; Exod. 7:14-11:10). Abram received many possessions from the Egyptians (12:16); Israel took great spoil before the Exodus (Exod. 12:35-36). God delivered both Abram and the nation Israel, and they journeyed north toward the Negev (12:19, 13:1; Exod. 15, Num. 13:17, 22). (Alan Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books, 1985], 2:49.)

Thus Moses put this incident here to show Israel that just as God had delivered Abram from Egypt in spite of his weakness, so He had delivered Israel in spite of her weakness. It didn’t depend on their faith, but on God’s faithfulness. Just as Abram returned to the land and called upon the name of the Lord, so must Israel obey God by taking the land and calling upon His name. We can apply it to ourselves by realizing that when we are faithless, God is still faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). Thus, we should be restored in our faith as we look to the faithfulness of God. Three lessons:

1.God’s people are often faithless, especially during trials (12:10-16).

It is significant that Abram’s deception concerning his wife started with a trial, the famine in the land. Whenever we face trials, we need to be on guard because the situation can either to draw us closer to the Lord or turn us away. The words, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8), are written to suffering Christians (1 Pet. 5:9, 10). When trials hit, the devil moves in to take advantage of the situation by trying to get us to turn from the Lord to our own schemes.

That was Abram’s problem in this situation: He was relying on his own scheming, but he had not sought the Lord (see Isa. 31:1). If Abram had asked, the God who would later rain manna from heaven and bring water from a rock could have supplied his needs in the land during this famine. But he didn’t bother to ask.

When you turn from the Lord to your own schemes of deliverance, you get yourself in deeper trouble, and you have to figure out even more schemes. Like turning on a road that angles off from the main road, the farther you go down the path of self-reliance, the farther you get from the Lord. As Abram got closer to Egypt, he realized that he could be in great danger because of Sarai. So he concocted a plan to pawn her off as his sister, not his wife (12:11-12).

Abram has been condemned as a coward, out to save his own skin, but unconcerned about Sarai’s safety. But this is probably not fair. Abram’s thinking was most likely that if the Egyptians thought Sarai was his sister, they would have to go through him to make marriage arrangements for her. Abram could stall for time, hopefully until the famine had subsided, and then head north again. Thus he wouldn’t be murdered for his wife, and Sarai wouldn’t be given in marriage. Besides, since Sarai was actually Abram’s half-sister, the scheme was technically not a lie; Abram could salve his conscience.

But the scheme backfired when Pharaoh took an interest in Sarai. You don’t stall or bargain when Pharaoh wants your sister in his harem. So Abram lost his wife for a while. There is no indication that Pharaoh violated Sarai. God protected her from adultery. But she was separated from Abram, living in Pharaoh’s harem, awaiting the wedding day. The scheme nearly cost Abram his wife, and with her, the promised blessing of God to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation.

Let me deal here with two tangential problems. First, some wonder how Sarai could have been so good looking, since she was 65 or older, and yet at 90 she was considered old (compare Gen. 17:17 with 12:4). The solution is that since the patriarchal life span was about twice ours (Abram lived to 175, Sarah to 127), Sarai here would be comparable to our thirties, and thus could still be considered beautiful by the Egyptians. By 90 she would be comparable to our late forties, thus past her childbearing years, although still attractive. In chapter 20, when Abimelech wants to marry Sarah, there is no mention of her beauty. He may have wanted her for the favorable alliance with the prosperous Abraham. I had to laugh when I read Keil and Delitzsch, a scholarly 19th century German commentary. They say how the Egyptians would probably find Sarai attractive because their wives, “according to both ancient and modern testimony, were generally ugly, and faded early” (Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], p. 197)!

The other problem concerns the matter of whether Sarai was right or wrong to submit to Abram’s deceptive scheme. First Peter 3:1-6 mentions Sarah as an example of obedience to her husband in the context of saying that wives should submit even if their husbands are disobedient to the word. Some take this to refer to this incident and say that wives should submit even when their husbands want them to do something wrong, trusting God to protect or deliver them.

I believe that Scripture clearly establishes the husband as the head of the home. But the Bible also teaches that when a God- given authority in any sphere asks one under authority to violate the clear commandments of God, the person under authority must first tactfully appeal to the authority. If that fails, he or she must obey God, not men. So I think Sarai was wrong to go along with Abram in this deceptive scheme, even though God graciously protected her. Her lie on top of Abram’s lie expanded the circle of involvement and almost led Pharaoh to commit adultery with her. Sin always snowballs like that. So, the wife or person under authority must stop the progression of sin when it comes down to her.

So Abram encountered a trial that led him to act on his own, without seeking God. This got him into another situation where he devised a lie in an attempt to protect himself. That got him into deeper trouble. But, take note, it got him what he said he wanted! In 12:13 he told Sarai to lie “so that it will go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you.” In 12:16 we read that it went well with Abram on account of Sarai. Pharaoh gave him livestock and servants (probably including Hagar, by the way) for Sarai’s sake. But the hitch was, of course, that Pharaoh took his wife.

Do you think Abram was happy as he sat alone in his tent night after night? He could hear the bleating of the many sheep and goats, the lowing of the cattle, and the braying of the donkeys, evidence that it had gone very well with him on account of Sarai, just as he had wished. But while he got what he had wanted, there was an emptiness in Abram’s heart as he sat wondering whether he would ever have Sarai back as his wife again.

But let’s not just talk about Abram’s faithlessness. Let’s talk about our faithlessness as well. If you’ve known the Lord for any length of time, you have done the very same thing Abram did. It was easy to trust and obey God as long as things were going well for you. You thought, “Hey, this Christian life is great!” Then there was a famine in your land. Things weren’t going quite the way you expected. You said, “Lord, what’s going on here? Isn’t this supposed to be the abundant life?” And you turned from God to the world or to your own ingenious schemes to fix the problems. You rationalized, “A man has to take care of himself, doesn’t he?”

Maybe you had to tell a few half-truths to pull the right strings. You salved your conscience by telling yourself that you really hadn’t lied. And besides, things were going pretty well now, since you started down this path. You got that raise, your business took off. Just look at your prosperity. You say things like, “I’m making more money than ever before. Isn’t that an indication of God’s blessing?” Or, “I feel really good about this new relationship. If it weren’t God’s will for me to marry this guy, wouldn’t He stop me?” The world may treat you well, but if you peel away the veneer and catch you at a rare quiet moment alone, you’d have to admit that there is a leanness in your soul. That’s where Abram was; we’ve all been there, too. Maybe you’re there right now. Notice that the Lord isn’t mentioned in this story until verse 17:

2. In spite of our failures, God is always faithful (12:17-20).

In the face of Abram’s faithlessness, we see God’s faithfulness. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). Even though Abram’s eyes were off the Lord, the Lord’s eyes were never off Abram. God intervened by striking Pharaoh and his household with some sort of unspecified plagues. But somehow the Egyptians figured out that things started going badly from the moment Sarai took up residence in the harem. And somehow Pharaoh found out that Sarai was Abram’s wife. Pharaoh’s command to Abram to take his wife and go (12:19) echoes God’s call to Abram to go forth from his country (12:1). God uses a pagan king’s rebuke to get Abram back to the promised land to uphold His divine call. The incident shows God’s faithfulness in spite of Abram’s faithlessness.

It’s always embarrassing for a believer to be rightly corrected by an unbeliever. It’s tough to bear witness in those situations! Remember Jonah, fleeing from the Lord on the ship headed for Tarshish? When the storm arose, they cast lots to figure out whose fault it was. The lot fell on Jonah. They ask him about himself and he has to tell them that he’s a Hebrew, who fears the Lord God who made the heaven and the sea and the dry land. And he tells them that he is fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Even though they’re pagans, they answer, “How could you do this?” (Jonah 1:8-10). They could see Jonah’s inconsistency. So here Pharaoh calls Abram to account and Abram doesn’t say a word in reply. He just goes off with his tail between his legs, duly chastened.

If you as a Christian ever get rightly rebuked for your sin by an unbeliever, just confess your sin and seek the person’s forgiveness and pray that God will give you or someone else an opportunity at another time for witness. But don’t try to minimize or rationalize your sin and then proceed to witness for Christ. That’s the worst thing you could do!

Verse 20 shows God’s abundant grace in spite of our sin. Pharaoh commanded his men, and they escorted Abram, his wife, and all his belongings out of the country. That’s grace: undeserved favor. If Abram had got what he deserved, Pharaoh would have killed him and kept Sarai and all his possessions. Or at least he would have kept his possessions and kicked Abram and Sarai out of the country with just the shirts on their backs. But God graciously blessed Abram through Pharaoh.

Don’t ever mistake God’s grace as a license to sin. God’s grace ought to bind us in deeper devotion to our forgiving Father:

O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee!

(Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount”).

God’s grace never ought to be a reason for us to think, “I got off easy the last time, so I can do it again.” If we do that, we are courting God’s severe discipline (Gal. 6:7). In this case, God’s faithfulness and grace led Abram to be restored:

3. God’s faithfulness should lead us to repentance and restoration (13:1-4).

Abram headed back to Bethel (= “The House of God”), “to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, ... to the place of the altar, which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord” (13:3, 4). Last week we saw that two things marked Abram’s life of obedient faith: the tent and the altar. The tent showed Abram to be a pilgrim, one just passing through on the way to another destination. The altar showed Abram to be a worshiper of the living God. The altar also bore witness to the godless Canaanites of the true God and of their own idolatrous ways. Abram left Egypt and came back to the tent and the altar. To call on the name of the Lord means to worship and trust God for who He is, the righteous and yet merciful Sovereign, who faithfully keeps His promises even when we are faithless.

What Abram did, we need to do when we have disobeyed God and strayed from His paths. We need to return to our beginning place with God, the cross. We bow there and remember the great price the Lord paid for our forgiveness. We call on His name, His attributes: His love, His holiness, His grace, His faithfulness. And we reestablish the communion we formerly enjoyed with Him. What the altar was to Abram, the Lord’s Table is to be to us. We are invited there frequently, to confess our sins and appropriate God’s forgiveness. If you are straying from the Lord, right now He invites you to come back to the cross and be restored to fellowship with Him.


Thank God that when we’re faithless and turn to our own schemes to escape trials, He remains faithful to restore us to faith in Him in order to fulfill His purpose! John Newton, the converted slave trader and drunkard, who became a faithful pastor and author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” wrote another hymn which, sadly, is not as well-known. It shows God’s faithfulness in bringing trials into our lives and our need to seek Him rather than turning to our own schemes:

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.

I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

“Lord, why is this?” I trembling cried,
“Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
“‘Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Does God send trials or just allow them? Is the difference significant? Discuss.
  2. Why are prosperity or good circumstances not necessarily signs of God’s blessing?
  3. When you’re in a “famine,” how can you determine whether you’re in or out of God’s will?
  4. Was Sarah wrong to submit to Abraham in this situation? When are we justified in disobeying authority? How can we do it properly?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith

Lesson 28: Choices, Consequences (Genesis 13:5-18)

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There is a point along the Continental Divide high in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado at which the waters of a small stream separate. It would not seem to matter much whether a drop of water goes to the left or to the right. But the outcome of those drops of water is totally different. One drop goes to the west and eventually flows into the Colorado River and empties into the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Another drop goes east until it flows into the Mississippi River and dumps into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Two drops of water, two entirely different destinations, but one small turning point that determines the outcome.

Many choices in life are like that. At the time they don’t seem significant. But those choices set in motion a series of events which shape your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren after you. If we could share how we all came to know Christ as Savior, I would guess that many of you chose to go somewhere where you met someone who started talking to you, which led to a chain of events resulting in your salvation. The original choice wasn’t a big deal, but the outcome was life-changing. Or if we all shared how we met our mates, many of the stories would begin with seemingly insignificant decisions to attend some social event. That decision led to a relationship which forever affected our lives, not to mention our children’s lives.

Sometimes people make unwise choices which aren’t momentous in themselves, but they lead to tragedies: A teenager chooses to ride with a friend who has been drinking, resulting in a serious accident and the loss of life. A girl decides to have a drink at a party, resulting in her letting down her inhibitions. She ends up pregnant or with a venereal disease. Since seemingly small decisions can have such momentous consequences, how can we protect ourselves from making wrong choices? The story of Lot’s choice (Gen. 13:5-18) teaches a crucial lesson about life’s choices:

Since choices often result in eternally significant consequences, we must choose in line with God’s principles.

The herdsmen of Lot and of Abram were quarreling because there wasn’t adequate land to support all their flocks. So Abram gave Lot his choice of where to settle. Lot surveyed the land and decided to move down into the lush Jordan valley. That choice was the beginning of Lot’s gradual but steady spiritual decline. First he looked toward Sodom (13:10). Then he moved his tents near Sodom (13:12). Next we find him living in Sodom (14:12). Finally he is sitting in the gate of Sodom (19:1)--he was a city official. He lost his wife, barely escaped with his own life and his two daughters, and goes off the Old Testament page hiding in a cave where his daughters make him drunk and commit incest with him. The offspring of those disgraceful nights were the Moabites and the Ammonites, two of Israel’s perennial enemies. It all began with Lot’s choice to live near Sodom.

1. Choices often result in eternally significant consequences.

There is a clear progression in this story. First, both Lot and Abram have increased wealth (13:2, 5-6). Their increased wealth leads to increased strife because there simply wasn’t enough land for each of them, plus the Canaanites and the Perizzites (13:7). They didn’t have that problem before. Where did we ever get the notion that wealth will solve our problems? Some of the most unhappy families in the world are those with the most money, where one member is set against the other, trying to make sure he gets his portion of the inheritance. The increased strife led to increased responsibility for choices. Lot wasn’t just deciding for himself. His family and many servants and their families would be affected by his decision. The increased responsibility for choices led to either increased wickedness (in Lot’s case, choosing Sodom) or increased blessing (in Abram’s case, choosing Canaan).

Genesis 13 is the first mention of wealth in the Bible. Wealth can be a blessing, but we need to recognize something that isn’t said very often in our prosperous culture: Wealth is a dangerous blessing! Increased wealth always results in increased potential either for evil or for good. To whom much is given, much shall be required (Luke 12:48). When your income increases, so does your accountability to God.

We need to pay serious attention to the biblical warnings about wealth. As Jesus watched the rich young ruler walk away, He observed, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24). The apostle Paul said, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).

Everyone is quick to point out, “It isn’t money, but the love of money that’s the problem!” (Whew!) That’s true, but irrelevant. It’s like handing a five-year-old a loaded gun and saying, “Guns aren’t dangerous, just the people who use them.” True, but irrelevant. The fact is, no five-year-old is mature enough to handle a loaded gun. And no sinner is capable of properly handling money unless he is constantly yielded to the Holy Spirit and is continually on guard against every form of greed.

So Lot’s increased wealth led to strife which led him to make the worst decision of his life. Lot did something many American Christians do, usually without much thought: He made a major life decision based on the unchallenged assumption that pursuing prosperity should be the main goal in life. Lot chose Sodom because he saw the lush valley and thought he could prosper there. We’re given a clue when verse 10 says that Lot saw the valley “like the land of Egypt.” Lot’s heart was still down in Egypt, where he had become rich along with Abram. Lot didn’t want any part of the hard life of faith, of living in famine-stricken Canaan. He wanted to live the good life in Egypt. He never seemed to consider what verse 13 points out, the spiritual implications of moving his family to Sodom.

I’ve seen many Christian families make a decision to move because the husband is offered a better-paying job. But they never consider how the move will affect them and their family spiritually. You can’t escape from living near sinners (Canaan was almost as bad as Sodom), but some people and places are exceedingly wicked. If God calls you to such a place as a witness, you go in with your guard up. But many American Christians, like Lot, decide where they’re going to live based on finances, not on spiritual reasons. Verse 11 states the problem: Lot “chose for himself....” He and his family paid an awful price.

Since many choices have eternally significant consequences, how do we make good choices?

2. We must choose in line with God’s principles.

It’s possible to gain the whole world and lose your soul. There is much more in life than the outward and material. We must base our choices on God’s Word, not on the assumptions of our culture. Those principles encompass the whole Bible and take a lifetime to learn thoroughly. But there are four basic principles in our text that I want to explore with you:

A. Make choices which value relationships over rights.

Note verse 8: “Please let there be no strife between you and me, ... because we are brothers.” Coming just after the statement about the Canaanites and Perizzites being in the land, this may point to Abram’s concern about how their strife would affect the witness to the pagans around them. How can God’s people bear witness for Him if the world sees them fighting among themselves?

Abram had a right to choose whatever land he wanted and let Lot take the leftovers. He was the older, the chief of the clan. God had promised the land to Abram, not to Lot. (Note, by the way, that even though Abram and Lot both had the freedom to choose, God’s sovereign purpose to give the land to Abram overruled their choices.) But Abram graciously yielded his rights and trusted God to give him his portion. What mattered to Abram was, “We are brothers.” He valued his relationship with Lot over his right to choose the best land.

So much strife could be avoided in the family and in the church if we would put a premium on our relationships, set aside our rights, and let the Lord take care of us. The next time you are about to quarrel with someone (and quarrelling is a choice we make!), stop and think about whether the quarrel is rooted in godly principle or in selfishness. Sometimes we need to confront sin or take a stand for the truth, even though it causes conflict. But be careful! It’s easy to justify selfishness by calling it righteous anger. The general rule is, “Let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Rom. 14:19).

B. Make choices which value godliness over greed.

By faith, Abram had already renounced everything visible and opted for the unseen promises of God. So he had no need, as Lot did, to choose by sight. There is a deliberate contrast between verses 10 and 14. In verse 10, Lot lifted up his eyes and chose the land which looked the best to him. He took off for the good life and left Abram literally in the dust, in dusty Canaan, where there had just been a severe famine. In verse 14, as Abram is standing there wondering if he did the right thing (and perhaps Sarah was asking him the same question), God tells him to lift up his eyes and look in every direction. All the land he can see will be his. Perhaps as Abram was looking around, his eyes fell down to the dusty soil on which he was standing. So the Lord says, “Do you see all that dust? I’ll make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered.”

Lot chose by sight and ended up spiritually and financially bankrupt. He escaped Sodom with the clothes on his back and fades out living in a cave. The things he saw and got didn’t bring him the lasting happiness he expected. Abram chose by faith, not by sight, and ended up spiritually and financially blessed, seeing and possessing by faith the whole land of Canaan, although he died owning only a burial plot. Lot lived for greed and came up empty. Abram lived for God and came up full.

How can we know whether we are under the influence of greed? Charles Simeon, a godly 19th century British pastor, offered three helpful criteria for evaluating ourselves (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], XII:469-471). First, we may judge ourselves by the manner in which we seek the things of this world. If we find ourselves thinking more about the things of this world and how to get them than about God; or if the thought of having them brings us more pleasure than our thoughts about God; or if we are willing to violate our conscience or neglect spiritual duties to pursue those things, then we are governed by greed.

Second, we may judge ourselves by the manner in which we enjoy the things of this world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the things God provides us. But, if we start thinking, “If I just had such and such, I would be happy,” or if we think that by getting so much in the bank, we will be secure from the trials of life, then we’ve shifted our trust from God to material things, and we are governed by greed.

Third, we may judge ourselves by the manner in which we mourn the loss of the things of this world. Christians are not to be devoid of feelings. But here Simeon is getting at the principle which enabled Job, when he lost all his worldly possessions, to say, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” It enabled Paul to be content with much or with little, because Christ was his sufficiency. If our joy rides on our possessions or if we are filled with anxiety and grief if we lose them, then we are more governed by greed than by God.

One night in November, 1980, the Lord enrolled us in a crash course on this subject. The Panorama Fire was raging out of control in a canyon a few miles below our house. At 4 a.m. a neighbor whose husband was a volunteer fireman called and told us that we would be forced to evacuate our home at 7 a.m. My office was at home then, and we only had a Mustang with a top rack to carry everything we wanted to take from my office and for the four of us (Daniel wasn’t yet born). We didn’t know whether we would ever see again what we left behind. It’s a wholesome experience I would recommend to everyone! It helps you clarify the question, “What are we really living for?” Remember, the same thing that happened to all of Lot’s stuff when Sodom burned is going to happen to all your stuff when Christ judges the world.

C. Make choices which value fellowship with God over the approval of the world.

Lot has often been criticized for moving to Sodom, but it is not often mentioned that both Abram and Lot lived in corrupt cultures. To compare the Canaanites with the Sodomites is like comparing Stalin with Hitler. The Sodomites rated a 10 on the wickedness scale, and the Canaanites a 9.5. So you have to ask, “Why did Abram remain untainted, but Lot became corrupted?”

The answer is in verse 18: “Abram moved his tent and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.” We see again the two things that marked Abram’s life of obedient faith, the tent and the altar: Abram the pilgrim, just passing through; and, Abram the worshiper, bearing witness to a pagan world. You don’t ever find Lot building an altar in Sodom, and he traded in his tent for a townhouse. He settled in Sodom and blended in with their corruption. He was popular, sitting on their city council, but he was not prophetic. Abram lived in fellowship with God and became known as the friend of God.

As Christians, we always face a tension: If we pull out of the world too far, we lose our witness because there is no contact. But if we blend in with the world, we lose both our fellowship with God and our witness to the world. Jesus was the friend of sinners, but He was never tainted by their sin because He put a premium on fellowship with the Father and He never sought the approval of the world. He was in the world with a clear sense of His mission, to glorify the Father and to seek and to save the lost. If we want to line up with Abram rather than with Lot, we’ve got to be people of the tent and the altar, pilgrims and worshipers, here to bear witness. We must put fellowship with God above the approval of the world in all our decisions.

D. Make choices which value God’s eternal promises over immediate pleasure.

Lot’s choice of Sodom was based on what would bring him quick gratification, but he didn’t take into account God’s promise to Abram about the land. After Lot moved to Sodom, the Lord reaffirmed His promise to Abram and even expanded on it (13:14-17). F. B. Meyer says that God wanted Abram “to feel as free in the land as if the title deeds were actually in his hands” (Abraham [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 50). God wanted to give Abram a graphic picture of what it means to possess by faith what God had promised, even though it wouldn’t be an actuality in Abram’s lifetime. The apostle Paul described it, “as having nothing yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:10).

As believers we are to live by faith in the promises of God. When we face decisions, we take God into account and make those decisions in line with His promises and principles, not the immediate gratification of the flesh. We deny ungodliness and worldly desires in light of the blessed hope of Christ’s return (Titus 2:11-13), trusting that His promises concerning eternity are true.

The Lord Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33, emphasis mine). Most of us want to seek the other things first and add the kingdom of God later in our spare time. The next time you face a decision that involves a major commitment of your time or a move to a different locale, make the decision based on how it will affect your own and your family’s commitment to the kingdom, not on financial factors alone. If the extra hours and the move will bring you more money, you need to ask, “Why do we want more money? Is it so we can give more to missions?” If the bottom line is that you want more money because you want more things, then you’re not seeking first God’s kingdom.


We tend to think of Christian commitment as a bold decision to forsake everything and follow Jesus. There is a sense, of course, in which that is true. We must make that once and for all commitment. But Lot had done that. He had left his family and friends in Ur to go with Abram to the promised land. Lot’s problem, like many Christians today, was in following through, walking step by step in dependence upon the Lord, saying no to the things of this world based on faith in the promises of God.

Someone has said that we tend to think of commitment to Christ like laying a $1,000 bill on the table: “Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.” But the reality is that God sends most of us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there, in small deeds of faithfulness and obedience. But it’s right there, in those little 25 cent choices, that our lives take their direction.

So make your choices based on God’s principles: Relationships over rights; godliness over greed; fellowship with God over the world’s approval; and, faith in God’s promises over immediate pleasure from the world. Because if you have God and His promises, you have everything. So seek Him first, and all else is yours.

Discussion Questions

  1. When (if ever) is it right to fight for your rights, and when is it right to give in? Are Christians supposed to be doormats?
  2. Is it necessarily wrong for Christians to desire a better lifestyle? How do we determine where to draw the line when it comes to amassing possessions?
  3. Are you more prone to withdraw from the world or to join in with it? How does a Christian find the right balance?
  4. To what extent should we protect our children from the pagan world in which we live?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 29: Restoring A Fallen Brother (Genesis 14:1-24)

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One of the most needed and yet most neglected ministries in the body of Christ is that of going after and seeking to restore a brother or sister who has fallen into sin. We avoid doing it for a number of reasons: No one likes confrontation. We don’t know what to say or how to go about it. We don’t want to be judgmental or critical. We’re aware of our own shortcomings and don’t want to come across as hypocrites. So we say, “It’s none of my business,” and let the person go on in his or her sin. Or, perhaps you tell one of the pastors or elders and let them deal with it.

But Galatians 6:1 instructs us: “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.” The ministry of restoring a fallen brother belongs to all who are spiritual, which means, spiritually mature, those who walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-26). While never easy, it is vital to the spiritual health of the church. You cannot be faithful to the Lord if you don’t grow in your ability to perform this important ministry.

Restoring a sinning brother calls for a faith that is both bold and humble--bold enough to confront sin and do battle with the forces of darkness, and yet humble enough to see how prone I am to sin and humble enough to depend on the Lord so that I don’t fall into sin in the process of seeking to restore my brother.

In Genesis 14, we see Abram exercising that kind of bold and humble faith. His nephew Lot made the decision to move his tents toward Sodom, which had the better grazing land. That choice started Lot on a spiritual slide from which he never recovered. By chapter 14:12 we find that Lot had moved into the city limits. Sodom, along with some other city-states in the region, had for 12 years been subject to a coalition of city-states in the east. But in the thirteenth year they rebelled (13:4).

The kings from the east weren’t going to let this region go without a fight. It was their trade route to Egypt. And so they began dealing with their opposition. They finally defeated Sodom, her king fled, and the residents and goods of Sodom were taken captive, including Lot. A fugitive came and told Abram, who staged a surprise, nighttime attack, recovering all that had been taken, including Lot and his possessions. On his return from battle, Abram was met by two kings, the mysterious Melchizedek, king of Salem, and the king of Sodom. Toward Melchizedek Abram was humble, offering him a tithe of the spoils. Toward the king of Sodom Abram was bold in rejecting his offer to keep the rest of the spoils for himself. In rescuing Lot, Abram exemplifies the kind of bold and humble faith we need if we want to be faithful in the ministry of restoring a fallen brother:

To restore a fallen brother we need faith in God which is both bold and humble.

Boldness and humility may seem antithetical, but they are not. They comprise the biblical quality of meekness or gentleness. We usually think of meekness as weakness, but biblical meekness is strength under control. A meek person is strong, but submissive to the Lord. He is like a powerful but well-trained horse, which can charge forth into battle, but is so sensitive and submissive that it will stop or turn at the slightest nudge from its master. Such humble boldness is a fruit of the Spirit that marks the godly person (Gal. 5:23).

Abram had that kind of bold, humble faith in God. In chapter 13, he humbly yielded to Lot and gave him first choice of the land. When Lot chose the most fertile land and then was taken captive, Abram didn’t say, “It serves him right!” He boldly went and rescued Lot. Then he humbly bowed before Melchizedek but boldly resisted the king of Sodom’s offer. He knew when to be bold and when to yield.

1. Bold faith goes to battle to restore a fallen brother (14:1- 16).

Most of us probably err here; we’re too passive, too hesitant to confront the forces of evil. Abram could have had a lot of excuses for not going after Lot. It was Lot’s fault; he chose Sodom. A man will reap what he sows. And isn’t God sovereign? He could have prevented these kings from conquering Sodom if it had been in His purpose. Why interfere? And, it wouldn’t be prudent for a man like Abram to go after four powerful kings. They hadn’t bothered him. He was living in peace. Why stir up a hornet’s nest? In the same way, we can always come up with plenty of excuses for not going after a fallen brother. But there’s always one compelling reason to go:

A. The reason for bold faith is the bondage of a brother (14:1-12).

Abram wouldn’t have risked going after these kings except that he heard that Lot had been taken captive (14:14). Even though Lot wasn’t right to be living in Sodom, he was a believer. And he was Abram’s nephew. Abram knew that he was his brother’s keeper. Even though Lot was at fault and was experiencing the consequences of his poor choice, Abram went after him.

These verses are a graphic illustration of the consequences of a believer dabbling in the world. Lot chose Sodom because he thought he could get rich there. He thought that the things of the world would bring him happiness and fulfillment. But the result was that he lost everything to this invading army and he himself was taken as a slave. Often a foolish Christian will cast off what he perceives as the “restrictions” of God’s Word and pursue the pleasures the world offers. But he ends up in bondage of the worst sort. It’s like a family pet rabbit that longs to break out of its cage and finally does so, only to find itself cornered by a dog. Sin promises us freedom, but we end up becoming the slaves of corruption (2 Pet. 2:19).

But the point for the spiritual Christian is that when our brother is caught in some trespass, we must exercise bold faith in seeking to restore him. Doing nothing is not an option if you love God and your brother.

B. The response of bold faith is to do battle to restore our brother (14:13-16).

Sometimes, if you do not have a relationship with the person, all you can do is pray. But when the situation involves someone you know, the Lord may want you to be involved. Remember, it’s never convenient or easy to go after a Christian who has fallen into the clutches of the enemy. It is always risky and it takes time and emotional energy. But the Lord Jesus went after the straying sheep, and if we are His followers, we must do the same. It is not just the responsibility of pastors. It is the job of every mature (spiritual) Christian. There are several things we can learn from Abram’s rescue of Lot about doing battle spiritually to restore our brother:

(1) You must be separate from the world and sin to rescue a fallen brother. If Abram had been living in Sodom, he would have been in the same fix Lot was in. Abram was living by the oaks of Mamre in Hebron (14:13). He had formed a mutual defense alliance with Mamre and his brothers, Eshcol and Aner (14:24). Some might argue that it was wrong for Abram to do so; in later times it was wrong for God’s people to form alliances with pagans.

But in Abram’s defense, in spite of this military alliance, he maintained his distinctive spiritual calling and purpose. Abram began by building an altar there (13:18), so he no doubt had told Mamre and his brothers about the one true God. He was in the world, but he wasn’t blending in with them. He was maintaining his distinctiveness as “Abram the Hebrew,” worshiper of God (14:13). This is the first time the word “Hebrew” occurs in the Bible. It probably comes from the name Eber, one of Abram’s ancestors (10:21, 24). But here it is used to set Abram apart from the Canaanites. From that position of separateness from the world, Abram was free to deliver Lot.

The only way you can help a brother or sister who is ensnared in the world or in some sin is to walk in holiness yourself (“you who are spiritual”). One reason Christians are often hesitant to confront a sinning brother is that they know there is sin in their own lives. So they adopt the philosophy, “You don’t confront me and I won’t confront you.” But the result is that sin festers and grows and the body of Christ is weakened.

(2) You need preparation to rescue a fallen brother. Abram led forth 318 trained men as well as his allies (14:24). Even though he was a peaceful man, Abram knew that the time would come when he needed to go to war. So he had trained his men before the enemy hit.

When Paul says, “you who are spiritual,” he’s not referring to something you attain instantly. As Galatians 5 spells out, the spiritual Christian is one who walks in the Spirit, who has replaced the deeds of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. That takes time. If you aren’t growing in the Lord and in your understanding of the principles of His Word, you won’t be able to apply those principles wisely when someone you know needs them. We need to use times of calm to learn spiritual warfare for the times of battle.

(3) You must use wisdom to rescue a fallen brother. Abram divided up his forces and pulled off a surprise night attack. The enemy army was probably somewhat lax after their string of victories. They weren’t expecting any retaliation. Maybe they were drinking and partying, with their guard down. That’s when Abram and his troops hit. No doubt he was trusting in God, but he also wasn’t stupid.

Consider the way Nathan confronted David in his sin. He didn’t walk up and say, “David, you committed adultery and murder.” He told David a story and got him to sympathize with the victim in the story. Then he sprung his trap by saying, “You’re the man! You did what the aggressor in the story did.” David broke down in repentance.

Howard Hendricks tells of how he went to speak at a church. He was met at the airport by the pastor’s wife, who told him, as they drove to their home, of her concern because her husband was overworking, heading toward a heart attack. He wouldn’t listen to her pleas to limit his ministry commitments. She asked Dr. Hendricks to talk to him. Most of us would have said something like, “Aren’t you working too hard?” The pastor would have said something like, “Well, it’s the Lord’s work.” And the rebuke would have rolled off him.

But Hendricks didn’t do it that way. He waited for the right moment and then asked the pastor, “Do you smoke?” He got a stunned look from the man, who finally blurted out, “No, of course not!” “Why not?” Hendricks persisted. “Because my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and I shouldn’t abuse it,” he replied. Hendricks shot back, “Then why are you abusing your body by working yourself toward an early grave?” The message hit home!

(4) You must act on principle, not results, to rescue a fallen brother. In verse 16 we read that Abram brought back Lot and all his possessions. Brought him back where? To Sodom. Lot didn’t learn a thing; he wasn’t changed one bit by this whole experience. There’s no word of thanks from Lot. In spite of what had just happened, Lot moved back to Sodom and continued his downward spiritual course. Abram probably could have guessed that Lot would do that. But he rescued him anyway.

Have you ever heard about a Christian caught in sin and you thought, “Why try to help him? It wouldn’t do any good.” There are three reasons to help him anyway. First, Christian love demands it. If you love someone you can’t sit around while he destroys himself through sin. Second, we don’t know the future, so we can’t assume that our brother will fall again. Maybe this time he will learn to walk with God. Third, we need to deliver ourselves. God told Ezekiel (3:16-21) that if the watchman didn’t warn the wicked to turn from their sin, God would require it of him. But if he warned them, but they refused to listen, at least the watchman had delivered himself. If you see a brother or sister in sin, you are responsible to try to restore him, no matter what he later does. The godly person needs a bold faith in God when a brother is caught in sin.

But boldness can easily become brashness. Satan often comes to us when we’ve been bold and pushes us farther in the same direction. Thus we also need humble faith.

2. Humble faith honors God and holds to Him after a spiritual victory (14:17-24).

Abram headed back from his great victory and was met by two kings, the king of Sodom and the king of Salem. Apparently the king of Sodom came up to him first, but before he could speak, the king of Salem arrived (14:17-20). Only after Abram had dealt with the king of Salem did he deal with the king of Sodom. There are two battles in this chapter: Abram’s battle with the foreign kings, and his battle with the tempting offer of the king of Sodom. The second battle was the greater, because it was the more subtle of the two. Abram’s fellowship with the king of Salem strengthened him to resist the temptations of the king of Sodom. In these two encounters we find Abram honoring God and holding to Him, not yielding to the temptations of success.

Melchizedek, the king of Salem, is one of the most intriguing men in the Bible. He seems to come out of nowhere and returns about as quickly as he came. He was the king of what later became Jerusalem. He brought out bread and wine to refresh the weary warriors. And “he was a priest of God Most High” (Hebrew = “El Elyon,” v. 18). This is the first mention in the Bible of anyone being a priest. We don’t know to whom he was a priest or how he became one or how he learned of God. We don’t even know his name, since Melchizedek is probably a title. It means “king of righteousness.” Some have speculated that he was an angel or even a preincarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, but those views are not likely.

We do know, from Psalm 110 and from the Book of Hebrews (the only other places in the Bible Melchizedek is mentioned) that he was a type of Jesus Christ, who became a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. We also know that even though Abram was one of the greatest men of faith in the Bible, Melchizedek was even greater. This is proved by the fact that he blessed Abram (“the lesser is blessed by the greater,” Heb. 7:7) and he received tithes from Abram (Heb. 7:1-10). Abram humbly accepted Melchizedek’s blessing and offered him a tenth of the spoils. From Abram’s encounters with Melchizedek and with the king of Sodom, we learn two things about humble faith:

A. Humble faith honors God.

Melchizedek attributed Abram’s victory to God Most High (14:20). Abram didn’t say, “Now wait a minute! God helps those who help themselves. Let’s give credit where credit is due.” Rather, he affirmed Melchizedek’s statement by giving him a tenth of the spoils. Both men were honoring God publicly for this great victory.

Next Abram honors God before the king of Sodom, who offers Abram a deal. Abram can take the rest of the spoils, but the king wants his people back. But Abram refuses to take anything, lest the king of Sodom could say, “I have made Abram rich” (14:23). Abram was guarding God’s honor. God had promised to prosper Abram, and he didn’t want the king of Sodom taking credit for God’s work. If the world can take credit for part of the believer’s success, then God is robbed of His glory. So even though Abram could have rationalized that this was God’s means of blessing him, he didn’t do it. He wouldn’t equate Sodom’s goods with God’s blessing. Humble faith honors God when there are spiritual victories.

B. Humble faith holds to God and resists the temptations of success.

The test of how we handle success is usually greater than how we deal with crisis. According to Ezekiel 16:49, Sodom was very rich. So when the king of Sodom offered Abram the spoils of battle, which consisted of all the wealth of Sodom, it was no small prize. Abram could have become fabulously wealthy by accepting this offer.

If you put yourself in Lot’s sandals, this was an ironic turn of events. He had picked the best land for himself and left Abram the barren land of Canaan. He went for the money and ended up being taken captive and losing all he had. Abram had opted to trust God, and now he is given the opportunity to have not only all of Lot’s possessions, but all the possessions of the whole city of Sodom! Can you imagine how shocked Lot would have been, who sought the riches of Sodom, to watch as Abram was offered all those riches? But he must have been even more shocked when Abram refused them! He probably thought old uncle Abram had slipped into senility!

But Abram wasn’t senile. He knew God as “the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth” (14:22), who will give him what has been promised without the world’s help. Abram had thought this through beforehand in the presence of God, and had decided that he wouldn’t take anything from the spoils so that he wouldn’t be indebted to the king of Sodom. In other words, it was a settled decision on Abram’s part not to be in bondage to things, but to trust God to provide according to His promises. Convictions like that are the sort of thing you need to work out before you face temptation. If you make up your convictions as you go, you’ll be destroyed by the temptations of success. But if you determine up front to hold to God by faith, you’re more likely to be able to resist those temptations.

Note one other thing: Abram held his convictions for himself, but he didn’t force them on others who weren’t yet where he was at. He told the king of Sodom to give his men who went with him their share of the booty (14:24). These men were on Abram’s side and they were probably learning about Abram’s God. But they weren’t at Abram’s level of conviction concerning the spoils of battle. If Abram had forced his convictions on them, they would have gone away grumbling, and it would have been a barrier to their later coming to the same point of faith as Abram had come to.


Genesis 14 is an illustration of Galatians 6:1. Verses 1-12 illustrate, “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass”; verses 13-16 illustrate, “you who are spiritual, restore such a one”; and verses 17-24 shed light on, “in a spirit of gentleness, looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

When asked why Congress doesn’t decrease deficit spending, Senator Strom Thurmond explained, “It’s awfully hard to get a hog to butcher itself.” That’s why we need one another in the body of Christ. We need to learn from Abram and exercise bold, yet humble, faith in the ministry of restoring our brothers and sisters who have been taken captive by sin. We are our brother’s keeper!

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some guidelines for determining whether to talk to someone about their sin or to let it go for a while?
  2. Do you agree that most Christians are too passive in confronting sin? How can we grow in godly boldness?
  3. What are some barriers or excuses which keep us from attempting to restore a sinning Christian? How can we overcome these?
  4. How can we know if we are “spiritual” (Gal. 6:1)?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Fellowship, Leadership

Lesson 30: Making God’s Promises Yours (Genesis 15:1-6)

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Have you ever had the experience of doing something brave or of making a bold decision which later came back to haunt you? At the time you did it, you were strong. You thought you were acting in faith. But in the aftermath, you were gripped by fear as you thought about the possible repercussions. Sometimes I have taken a strong stand or spoken out boldly on some issue. But later, when criticism hits, I begin to worry and to second-guess my earlier boldness.

Maybe you’ve gone through something similar. You were challenged to step out in faith and trust God for something. You gave up a choice financial or career opportunity because you wanted to serve the Lord. You gave a large sum of money to the Lord’s work. But then a financial crisis hit. You said no to that date with a good-looking non-Christian guy, only to sit home for weeks without any other dates. You started wondering, “Did I do the right thing?”

That’s where Abram was after the events of Genesis 14. His wayward nephew Lot, living in Sodom, was taken captive by four kings from the east. In a bold move, Abram led his trained men against these kings and staged a surprise attack by night, routing the army and recovering all the people and spoil. When he returned, he offered a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek, the king of Salem, but refused to take his rightful share from the king of Sodom, lest that worldly man could boast that he had made Abram rich. Abram had given up fabulous wealth on the principle that God, who had promised to bless him, would meet his needs.

Then fear came knocking. One night as Abram lay awake in his tent, he was thinking about the fact that those kings from the east weren’t the sort of guys to take a humiliating defeat passively. Surely, they’d come looking for that puny shepherd who had taken them by surprise, and when they found him, they’d wipe him out. He shouldn’t have rescued Lot. Now he couldn’t shake his fear.

And not only that, but Abram wondered whether he had done the right thing to refuse the spoils of Sodom. Sarai was complaining that they never had any spending money and she could use a new coat. Besides, that no good nephew Lot got all of his things back, things which rightly could have been Abram’s now. Abram lay there in the dark, wondering whether he should have taken the spoil of Sodom for himself, thinking, “I risked everything for that ungrateful, selfish nephew of mine, and what do I have to show for it? Nothing!” Fear and worry!

You’ve been there, haven’t you? You did the right thing, but you didn’t prosper. Another person did the wrong thing, and he’s having a great time. Meanwhile, you’re wondering whether you might get wiped out because you did what was right.

What do you need at a time like that? The answer is, you need to trust in the Lord. The Lord has promised His blessings to those who trust in Him. God’s blessings don’t always come to us the moment we think they should. Some are delayed for months or years. Some don’t even come to us in this life. But He wants us to go on trusting Him. He is faithful to His promises in His time.

You make God’s promised blessings yours by trusting Him.

One night as Abram was wrestling with his fears, the word of the Lord came to him in a vision. We don’t know exactly what that vision entailed. Perhaps as Abram thought of the shields of the warriors and of the spoils of the battle, God spoke to him and said, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your very great reward” (NASB margin).

No doubt Abram was comforted by these words, and yet there remained a void in his heart. God had previously promised to give him a son and to multiply his descendants as the dust of the earth. But he had been in the land nearly ten years now (16:3), but he still had no son. Sarai wasn’t getting any younger. And so out of confusion, not in defiance, Abram asks God about His promise of a son: “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?... Since You have given no seed [lit.] to me, one born in my house is my heir.” These two verses repeat themselves, but they show realistically the words of a man who is confused about God’s delay in fulfilling His promises.

The Lord graciously clarifies the previous promises by stating that Abram’s servant would not be his heir, but, rather, one who came forth from his body. The Lord made the lesson vivid by taking Abram outside, showing him the stars, and saying, “So shall your descendants be.” Abram’s response was to believe “in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). This crucial verse shows us that even at this early time, justification (right standing with God) was by faith. The apostle Paul expounded on this verse twice (Romans 4 & Galatians 3), to argue that we are saved by faith apart from any works. It shows us that trusting in the Lord is the means of obtaining His promised blessings.

Trusting in the Lord has gotten terrible press in Christian circles in the last few years. We’ve bought into the view that when a person is hurting or fearful or depressed or guilty, the most useless thing you can tell him is, “Trust in the Lord.” Instead we try to help him get in tune with his feelings and accept himself. We try not to be judgmental or offer any advice, but rather to empathize with him. But tell him to trust in the Lord? You’ve got to be kidding! How impractical!

I’d like to get radical and suggest that when you’re experiencing distressing emotions, the most practical thing you can do is to trust in the Lord. How we ever got away from this is beyond me. From cover to cover the Bible proclaims the blessings that come to the person who trusts in the Lord. It is the solution to our problems. Rather than shrugging it off as useless advice, we need to learn what it means to trust the Lord in all the distressing ups and downs of life.

1. Trust must be in the Lord.

Abram “believed in the Lord.” There’s a phony kind of faith in faith itself, where faith is given some magical power in and of itself, apart from its object: “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows....” The false teachers of the “health and wealth gospel” tell us, “Just speak the word of faith and whatever you speak will be accomplished.” But that’s presumption, not faith. Biblical faith is always in God who has revealed Himself in His Word. It is not vague; it is specific, based on His Word.

And biblical faith is not an uncertain wish that says, “I sure hope it’s true, so I’m going to take a blind leap in the dark.” The essence of the Hebrew word (used here for the first time in the Bible) is firmness or certainty. In another Hebrew verb stem (roughly like our verb tense), the word has the idea of the strong arms of a parent supporting an infant. In Genesis 15:6, it means that Abram relied on the Lord and His word as true and certain.

This trust must be both personal and propositional. That is, it must be both in the personal God and in His Word.

A. Trust personally in the personal God.

Abram trusted in the Lord, in Yahweh, the personal, covenant God. In verse 2 (and v. 8), Abram addresses God as Adonai Yahweh. This is the first recorded time Abram speaks to God. Apart from here, the title occurs only two other times in the Pentateuch (Deut. 3:24; 9:26; see also, Exod. 23:17; 34:23). Adonai means Lord, Master, or Sovereign. It points to God’s absolute right to rule. So even though Abram is confused and asking God to clear up matters for him, he is asking submissively, not defiantly.

There are two ways you can ask God for things. You can ask defiantly, shaking your fist in God’s face, demanding, “Why are You letting this trial happen to me?” You’re challenging God’s authority to deal with you as He pleases. That kind of asking is always wrong. I’m greatly bothered when I hear of Christian psychologists telling their counselees to get out their rage at God. You don’t rage at the Sovereign Lord of the universe! You submit to Him!

But you can come to God as Abram did here, submissive, but confused. In this approach, you’re saying, “Lord, I don’t understand why things are going as they are. If You would reveal Your purposes to me so that I could more fully obey You, I would be thankful. But if not, I’ll trust You, even though I don’t understand.” Often the Lord will grant the wisdom we need to endure the trial, if we ask with that kind of submissive spirit (James 1:2-5). We can’t trust God if we aren’t submitting to Him as our Sovereign Lord.

There’s a very personal flavor to these verses, as God comes to Abram in his time of fear, assures him, and then in response to Abram’s confusion, takes him out into the night to look at the stars to give further confirmation of His promise. You’ll recall that when Abram was left with the dusty, famine-stricken land of Canaan after Lot chose the lush land near Sodom, the Lord told Abram that his descendants would be as the dust of the ground. Here, as Abram is afraid of retaliation in the night, God takes him out into the night and reassures him with the stars. God was personally tailoring this experience to meet Abram at his point of need. Abram’s response was to believe God.

Do you have that kind of personal trust in the personal God who created the universe? Even though He spoke into existence the billions of galaxies each with billions of stars, He cares about you to the extent that the very hairs of your head are numbered. When you’re fearful or anxious you can go personally to Him and tell Him your problems and know that He cares for you. It is personal trust in the personal God.

B. Trust personally in the personal God’s promises.

God has revealed Himself propositionally, that is, in the words of Scripture. While God spoke verbally to Abram, He has revealed Himself to us in the inspired words of the Bible. This is the first time in the Bible the phrase, “the word of the Lord came to” someone occurs (15:1, 4). It occurs often after this, especially with the prophets. We have the word of the Lord preserved in the Bible. Trust involves not only believing in the Lord, but also in the things He has revealed in His Word. In other words, trust isn’t a subjective feeling; it is a cognitive reliance on the objective promises of God as revealed in His Word.

The question comes up, What did Abram believe on this occasion? We know that he had believed God previously, when he left Ur and set out for Canaan (Heb. 11:8). Thus Abram was already what we would call a saved man before this experience. So why does Moses mention here that Abram believed God and that God reckoned it to him as righteousness?

Martin Luther said that Abram was justified by faith long before this time, but that it is first recorded in this context in a connection where the Savior is definitely involved in order that none might venture to dissociate justification from the Savior (cited in H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 1:479). John Calvin thought that it is mentioned here, long after Abram was first justified, to prove that justification does not just begin by faith, only to be perfected later by works. Rather, justification is by faith alone, apart from works, from start to finish (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:408-409).

What Abram believed on this occasion is the specific word of the Lord concerning a son (seed) which would come forth from his body. Abram knew that through this seed, blessing would come to all the families of the earth (12:3). As Paul argues in Galatians, the word seed is singular, not plural, thus pointing not to all of Abram’s descendants, but to the one descendant of Abram, Christ (Gal. 3:16). So when Abram believed in the Lord, what he believed specifically was the promise that a Savior for the world would come forth from his descendants.

You may wonder, how much did Abram know about Jesus Christ, who would be born 2,000 years later? He knew more than we may assume! Jesus Himself said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Paul said that the gospel was preached beforehand to Abram when God promised, “All the nations shall be blessed in you” (Gal. 3:8). Though he didn’t know Jesus’ name and he had no visible evidence other than God’s verbal promise, Abram looked forward in faith to God’s Redeemer and thus it is recorded here that God reckoned it to him as righteousness.

It’s that kind of personal trust in His promises about the Savior that God wants from you and me. The Christian life is not using God to obtain happiness and good feelings in this life; it is trusting God and His promises concerning the life to come. It concerns the question, “How can a sinful person like me be right with a holy God?” When we settle that question by trusting God’s Word concerning Christ, He graciously provides many other promises which help us in this present life. But you must begin by trusting in Jesus as your only hope for right standing with God. Our trust must be in God and His Word. What do we get when we join Abram in trusting in the Lord?

2. Trust obtains God’s promised blessings.

Trust is the channel through which God pours out His blessings on His people. There are two types of blessings which Abram realized, which we also will realize as we trust in the Lord.

A. God gives us Himself to calm us in life’s storms.

I prefer the translation of the NASB margin, which reads, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your very great reward.” That is, God Himself was Abram’s shield and reward. F. B. Meyer wrote, “To have God is to have all, though bereft of everything. To be destitute of God is to be bereft of everything, though having all” (Abraham [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 63).

Isn’t that true! You can gain everything this world offers, but if you don’t have God, you don’t have anything. This very night He can say to you, “Your soul is required of you,” and then where is all that you’ve gained? Or you can be a nobody by this world’s standards, but if you’ve got Christ, as Paul said, you possess all things (2 Cor. 6:10).

It’s significant that God revealed Himself to Abram at times of crisis. When he left his home and set out for the uncertainties of Canaan, God promised to bless him and make him a great nation (12:1-3). When Abram got to Canaan and we read that threatening parenthesis, “Now the Canaanite was then in the land,” the very next verse tells us that the Lord appeared to Abram and promised to give him that land (12:6-7). After Lot selfishly took the best land and left Abram in famine-stricken Canaan, God renewed and expanded on His promise to give Abram the land and to multiply his offspring (13:14--17). And so now, as Abram wrestled with the fear of retaliation, God said, “I am a shield to you.” As he worried about poverty after refusing the spoils of Sodom, God reassuringly said, “I am your very great reward.” You never lose anything when you give up something to follow the Lord.

Donald Barnhouse observes, “God’s method of supplying our need is to give us fresh knowledge of Himself, for every need can be met by seeing Him” (Genesis [Zondervan], 1:105). If you’re facing a crisis in your life, look in God’s Word for a fresh insight into who He is. Abram didn’t know God as his shield until he was afraid of retaliation from his enemies. He didn’t know God as his very great reward until he was worried about his financial condition.

Are you lonely? Look to Christ as your Bridegroom, Lover, and Friend! Are you depressed? Come to know the Lord as your joy! Are you fearful and anxious? He is your refuge and peace! Are you confused and need direction? He is your wisdom and guide! One reason He allows trials into our lives is so that as we trust Him, we will come to know more of His sufficiency for our every need. Contrary to being a useless thing, trusting in the Lord is the means by which His precious and magnificent promises become ours in experience (2 Pet. 1:3-5). He graciously reveals more of Himself to us as we trust Him in our trials. But there’s more:

B. God gives us His righteousness to qualify us for heaven.

When Abram believed God, God credited it to him as righteousness. Abram was justified or made right before God. This is one of the most important doctrines in the Bible, that God declares righteous the guilty sinner who trusts in Christ. It is the very core of the gospel. I plan to devote an entire message to this verse, but for now I can only be brief.

As Paul spells out in Romans 3 & 4, this verse means that God declares righteous the guilty sinner when that sinner does not trust in his own good works, but rather when he trusts the perfect obedience and the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ on his behalf. “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5).

A commanding officer of a military base issued an order that no one could come on base who was not in uniform. The next morning, a general in civilian clothes drove up to the main gate, but the sentry stopped him from entering. “What’s the reason for this?” he bellowed. “Let me in. Don’t you know who I am?” “I certainly do, sir,” the guard replied, “but I must follow orders. I have been told not to let anyone pass who is not in uniform.”

If you think you will be admitted to heaven because of anything in yourself, you are in for a rude awakening. The only uniform that will gain entrance to heaven is the robe of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, credited to your account. God is pleased to give this blessing apart from any human merit when a guilty sinner believes in Christ.


During World War II the King of England ordered an evacuation of children from the bomb-torn areas in London. Since many of the children had never been away from home before, they were quite nervous and upset. A mother and father had just put their young son and daughter aboard a crowded train and said good-by. No sooner had it left the station than the little girl began to cry. She told her brother she was scared because she didn’t know where they were going. Brushing his own tears away, he put his arm around his sister to comfort her. “I don’t know where we’re going either,” he said, “but the King knows, so don’t worry!” (“Our Daily Bread,” 8/77.)

Perhaps you’re fearful or worried about some problem you’re facing. God is not just Abram’s shield and great reward; He will be that to you also. You may not know where you’re going, but God knows. Trusting in Him is the means of bringing His promised blessings down into your daily problems. It is the most practical thing you can do, because it links you with the all-sufficient Sovereign Lord.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is “trusting in the Lord” impractical advice when it comes to dealing with tough problems? Why/why not?
  2. How can a person learn practically to trust in the Lord?
  3. How can we know whether particular promises of God apply to us today so that we can rightfully claim them by faith?
  4. What’s the difference between “using God” for personal happiness and trusting God’s promises in the proper sense?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith

Lesson 31: Justification by Faith Alone (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-5)

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The late theologian John Gertsner once spoke to a group of business people on the subject of justification. There was a reporter from a local newspaper in attendance. Gertsner preached the great doctrine of justification as emphatically, clearly, and persuasively as he knew how. But he was a bit discouraged when he looked at the paper the next day and discovered that he had spoken the night before on the theme of “just a vacation by faith”!

Since I just took a vacation, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m speaking today on how you can have a nice holiday by faith alone! Rather, I’m speaking on one of the most important truths in all of the Bible for you to understand and apply. You may not realize that this is so, but it is. You may a young person who thinks that the most important thing in your life is how to find the right marriage partner or how to know what career to pursue. You may be a married person who thinks that the most important matter is how to be happy in your marriage or how to raise your children properly. You may be a business person who is concerned about financial pressures and how to make wise business decisions.

While each of these issues is important, none are nearly as significant as the issue which lies behind the biblical doctrine of justification by faith: How can I be right before a holy God? None of the things that we now think are important will matter in that moment when we die and stand before God. Since we all must face that day, no issue is more important than that of knowing that you are in right standing with the eternal God who spoke the universe into existence. The answer to this matter of how to be right with God hinges on a proper understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.

This doctrine is first clearly stated in the Bible in Genesis 15:6, which says of Abram, “Then he believed in the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is not the first time in the Bible that anyone was reckoned righteous by God, but it is the first time that the doctrine is clearly stated in so many words. As we saw in our last study, Abram had entered into a right standing with God before this time, but it is stated here to show that from start to finish, a person is accepted by God apart from good works and solely on the basis of the righteousness of God credited to that person’s account through faith (see Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:408-409). The apostle Paul quotes this verse twice (Rom. 4:3, Gal. 3:6) as he explains how a person comes into a right standing with God. Since your relationship to God and whether you are under His judgment or not is of utmost importance, I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek to understand and lay hold of this great doctrine of justification by faith alone.

I need to say one further word by way of introduction. This doctrine played a central role in the Protestant Reformation, and it represents the fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in our day. There are many other differences, such as liturgy, the veneration of Mary, prayer to the saints, penance, communion, purgatory, etc. But by far the most crucial difference between Roman Catholicism and Bible-believing Protestantism is this matter of justification by faith alone.

There is a strong movement in our day to break down all denominational and doctrinal distinctives among professing Christians, even those that divide Catholics and Protestants. We’re being told that since both groups believe in Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t get hung up over some theological fine points on this matter of justification by faith alone. Love and unity are more important than precisely correct doctrine, so let’s not debate or draw doctrinal distinctions.

Hear me carefully: Biblical love does not keep silent when it comes to matters of life and death. If you love someone, you must speak the truth when they are in serious error. The apostle Paul wrote Galatians to warn the churches about some men called Judaizers who believed in Christ, but who taught that faith in Christ alone is not enough to make a person right with God, but that people also had to keep the Jewish law, especially circumcision. Paul didn’t reason, “Well, these men believe in Christ, and unity and love are more important than right doctrine.” Rather, he said that these men were accursed because they were preaching a false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).

At the Council of Trent (in 1547), the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation, including the doctrine of justification by faith. The Canons and Decrees of Trent represent the official teaching of the Catholic Church to this day. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s declared these doctrines “irreformable.” Trent did not deny that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. But it added works to faith by combining justification (right standing with God) with sanctification (our growth in holiness subsequent to being justified) and by making justification a process that depends in part on our good works. To quote:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112.)

If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 12, in Schaff, 2:113.)

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 24, in Schaff, 2:115.)

If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened [to him]: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 30, in Schaff, 2:117.)

In other words, the Catholic Church declares that we are justified before God by grace through faith, but not through faith alone, but that our good works must be added to that faith in order both to preserve and increase our right standing before God. This process is not completed at the initial point of faith in Christ, and not even in this life, but only, hopefully, in Purgatory. Thus the Catholic Church denies the sufficiency of the guilty sinner’s faith in Christ’s sacrifice as the means of right standing with God. (For further treatment, see Justification by Faith Alone [Soli Deo Gloria], ed. by Don Kistler, especially pp. 7-14, by John MacArthur, Jr.)

I do not say any of this to be unkind to Roman Catholics. Quite the contrary, I say it because I care deeply that Catholics come to a biblically correct understanding of this most crucial matter of how a person gets right with God. I say it because many of you have Catholic loved ones, and I want you to be able to help them see this clearly. And, I don’t want us to compromise on the altar of so-called “love and unity” crucial biblical truth that divides Catholicism from Protestantism. There is an uncrossable chasm here. With all of that by way of introduction, let me state what Paul is teaching in Romans 4:1-5 as he quotes Genesis 15:6:

The guilty sinner is declared righteous by God on the basis of Christ’s death at the instant he believes in Christ.

To understand this, we need to discuss four points:

1. Justification is God’s declaring the guilty sinner to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s death.

Most people have the idea that when it comes time for the judgment, God, who they conceive of as a “nice” God will not be harsh as long as a person has been sincere and has tried his best to be a good person. In other words, people pull God down from His position of absolute righteousness as revealed in Scripture and make Him out to be tolerant of some sin, as long as it isn’t too bad (by human standards). And, they lift sinful men up from their condition of hostility toward God as revealed in Scripture and make them out to be basically good folks who mean well. So they erroneously conclude that the “pretty good God” will be nice and let “pretty good people” into heaven in spite of their faults.

But the Bible reveals God to be absolutely holy, who can tolerate no sinner dwelling in His presence. And, He is absolutely just, which means that the penalty for all sin must be paid. He never just brushes sin aside by saying, “Hey, no big deal. Don’t worry about it!” Also, the Bible says that if a person keeps all of God’s law, but stumbles at one point, he is guilty of violating the whole thing (James 2:10). As Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, keeping God’s holy law is not just an outward manner of not murdering anyone; it is an inward matter of never being angry with anyone! It is not just an outward matter of never committing adultery; it is an inward matter of never lusting after a woman in your heart (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28)! He sums up His teaching by saying, “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)!

So we have a huge problem: How can a just and holy God maintain His purity and yet be reconciled with people who have violated His commandments repeatedly in thought and deed? As Paul argues in the first three chapters of Romans, everyone from the raw pagan to the most religious Jew has violated God’s law and is under His just condemnation. Paul is arguing, using Abraham as his prime example, that no one can gain right standing with God through good works. The only way to be right with God is to trust in God’s provision for sin in Christ.

The biblical meaning of both the Hebrew and Greek words used for “justify” is, “to pronounce, accept, and treat as just, i.e., as, on the one hand, not penally liable, and, on the other, entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law. It is thus a forensic term, denoting a judicial act of administering the law--in this case, by declaring a verdict of acquittal, and so excluding all possibility of condemnation. Justification thus settles the legal status of the person justified” (J. I. Packer, “Justification,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 593). Justification does not mean to make righteous, as the Catholic Church teaches, but rather, to declare righteous. It is a legal term as used by Paul, and it has two aspects: Positively, the sinner is declared or reckoned as righteous (Rom. 4:3, 5); negatively, his sins are totally forgiven (Rom. 4:7, 8). The basis for this legal transaction is the shed blood of Jesus Christ whose death satisfied God’s righteous justice (Rom. 3:24-26).

2. The means of justification is faith in Christ’s death.

When Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” at first glance, you may think that “it” refers to Abram’s faith, so that God exchanged his faith for righteousness, in a sort of trade. But that would give some sort of merit to faith, which it does not have. In God’s “ledger” in heaven, on the debit side is all our sin. No amount of faith would balance that out on the credit side, because faith cannot pay for sin. Faith is not the basis of our justification; rather, it is the means. Faith is the hand which receives God’s provision in Christ. The basis for justification is that the just penalty for sin has been paid by an acceptable substitute. The justice of God must be met, and Jesus Christ paid that penalty.

Remember what Abram believed: He looked forward to the promised Savior who would be his descendant (“seed”) and believed God concerning that Savior. God, in a judicial accounting procedure, took Abram’s sin and credited it to the book of Jesus Christ, who would bear that sin on the cross. Then He took the righteousness of Jesus and credited it to Abram’s book, so that Abram received the very righteousness of God. Faith was merely the channel by which the transaction took place.

If you were being held captive by a band of terrorists and I organized a commando raid, where we swept into the camp by helicopter and brought you out to safety, it would be ridiculous for you later to say that it was your faith that saved you. No, the commandos saved you. Your faith was merely the means that allowed you to climb aboard the helicopter. In the same way, it is not your faith that saves you from your sin, much less any good deeds. God justifies the guilty sinner through Christ. Faith is simply the means by which His justification is applied to us.

If you come to God with your sin and say, “God, I want to exchange my sin for the righteousness of Jesus Christ,” God will take care of the transaction and declare you righteous in Him. God made Christ, “who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Faith means taking God at His word on the matter. It is the channel through which God’s promised blessings flow to us. You can be sure of heaven if you have let go of any supposed righteousness or goodness of your own and have laid hold of the death of Christ on the cross as the just payment for your sins.

To summarize: Justification is God’s declaring the guilty sinner righteous based on the death of Christ, and this transaction is applied to the sinner when he believes in Christ. Note further:

3. The only kind of people God justifies are the ungodly who do not work to be justified.

This may shock you and it certainly goes against what most people think. But Paul makes it very clear in Romans 4:5: God justifies the one who does not work, and who in fact is ungodly! God does not justify pretty good people who go to church and try to live a decent life. He does not justify those who give money to the church and volunteer their time. God does not justify Catholics or Protestants, Episcopalians or Lutherans, Methodists or even Baptists! God justifies only one sort of person: the ungodly, and among the ungodly, specifically those who do not work for their justification, but believe in Him!

That we cannot work for salvation and that we are not pretty good people who deserve heaven is one of the most stubborn ideas to dislodge from the proud human heart. In 1974 a researcher surveyed 7,000 Protestant youth from many denominations, asking whether they agreed with the following statements: “The way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life.” More than 60 percent agreed. “God is satisfied if a person lives the best life he can.” Almost 70 percent agreed. “The main emphasis of the gospel is on God’s rules for right living.” More than half agreed (cited by Dr. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made [Zondervan], p. 108).

Hear me on this: You cannot and will not be justified in God’s sight as long as you think that you can earn it or deserve it. You will not be right with God as long as you think of yourself as a pretty good person. We must come to see that we are ungodly sinners who are under God’s condemnation. Only then will we despair of ourselves and flee to God’s remedy in Christ. At the moment you do that, God credits to your account the very righteousness of His Son Jesus, and He takes your sin and puts it on Christ so that you stand before Him acquitted! It all depends on God and not at all on you. Faith is simply the hand that receives the free gift of God in Christ. Herman Kuiper wrote, “As little as a beggar, who puts forth his hand to receive a piece of bread, can say that he has earned the gift granted him, so little can believers claim that they have merited justification, just because they have embraced the righteousness of Christ, graciously offered them in the Gospel” (cited in Justification by Faith Alone, pp. 62-63). Note a final thing:

4. The transaction of justification takes place the instant a sinner believes in Christ.

Abraham believed and God reckoned. It happens as quickly as the judge banging the gavel and saying, “Not guilty!” At that moment, a soul passes from condemnation to acquittal, from the sentence of death to life, from the darkness and chains of the dungeon of sin to the light and liberty of God’s free grace.

May I ask you right now, do you believe that at this moment you are right with God entirely through what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, so that if you were to stand before Him right now, you would not enter into condemnation because Christ has borne your sins? If you say, “Well, I need to go home and read my Bible more and pray more before I settle that,” you have not grasped this great truth. If you feel that you still have to do something more or feel something more or rid yourself of some sin before you can come to God, you do not understand justification by faith alone.

In regard to this truth, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “If you cannot see that you can become a Christian immediately, at this moment, you have not grasped the doctrine. The moment one sees this doctrine one says, ‘Yes, I see that it is as possible for me to become a Christian now as it will be in a thousand years. If I withdrew from the world and became a monk or a hermit and spent my whole days in fasting and sweating and praying, I would be no nearer than I am now.’ God justifies the ungodly” (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], p. 179) at the instant they believe in Christ.


Charlotte Elliott was a young woman who was deeply concerned about her relationship with God. She went to church and had heard the gospel several times, but she had not yet trusted Christ to forgive her sins. One day an old Huguenot preacher visited her home. In the course of conversation, he said in his direct way, “Charlotte, when are you going to come to Jesus?” Taken aback, she replied, “Oh, I don’t know how.” The old preacher said, “You don’t know how? Why, you come to Jesus just as you are.” Later that evening, she couldn’t shake those words. She knelt by her bed and put her trust in Jesus Christ as her sin-bearer. From that experience, she wrote a hymn:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou biddest me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot;
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

If you will come to Jesus right now, acknowledging your ungodliness, but trusting in His shed blood as the just payment for your sin, like the man Jesus spoke of who cried out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” you, too, will go down to your house justified today.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to emphasize justification by faith alone, with nothing added? (See Rom. 4:2.)
  2. Can a Catholic understand and believe in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and be truly saved?
  3. Is God fair to justify a terrible sinner the instant he believes and also to justify a good person in the same way (see Matt. 20:1-16)?
  4. James 2:23 quotes Genesis 15:6 while arguing that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. Is he contradicting Paul? How do you harmonize James and Paul?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 32: Assurance (Genesis 15:7-21)

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A man and his wife went to a marriage counselor. When the counselor asked what the problem was, the woman sobbed, “My husband never tells me that he loves me.” When the counselor looked over at the husband, he snarled, “I told her that 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my mind.”

Even though we know we’re loved, it’s nice to hear it over and over again, isn’t it? Life is uncertain and unsettling. We need to be assured time and again that we are loved so that we feel secure in our relationships. The same thing is true spiritually. We know that God loves us and that nothing can separate us from His love. But we need to hear it over and over. When things don’t seem to be going as we had hoped, when our prayers don’t seem to be answered, when trials hit, we need assurance that God is there, that He is for us, that His promises will be fulfilled.

We might think that a giant in faith would not need God’s assurance, because his faith would never waver. But that is just not so. Even Abram, our father in the faith, needed to be assured concerning God’s promises to him. By faith Abram had obeyed God’s call to leave his home in Ur and go forth to the land which God would show him. God promised to give Abram a son and to make of him a great nation through which all families of the earth would be blessed. God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. But a few years had gone by and Abram still had no son and the Canaanites, not Abram, possessed the land.

Also, Abram had some fears. He had surprised the armies of four eastern kings and rescued his wayward nephew, Lot. And he had given up his right to the spoils of battle, lest he be indebted to the king of Sodom rather than to God. But now he feared retaliation from the eastern kings and he worried about poverty as he lived in the barren land of Canaan. So the Lord told him, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; [I am] your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1).

But Abram was still concerned because he had no son. He expressed that concern to the Lord in a submissive spirit (“Adonai Yahweh,” = “Sovereign Lord,” 15:2) and the Lord graciously confirmed the promise of a son by taking Abram out into the night, showing him the stars, and promising him that his descendants would be as numerous as those stars (15:4-5). Abram “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). So verses 1-6 confirm God’s promise to Abram of a son.

But what about the land? In verse 7, the Lord reminded Abram that He is Yahweh, who brought Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give him this land to possess it. But Abram needed assurance about this part of the promise also. The Canaanites possessed the land, and as far as Abram could tell, there wasn’t much progress being made toward his taking possession of it. And so he asked the Lord, submissively again (he again uses “Adonai Yahweh,” acknowledging God’s sovereignty as Lord), “How may I know that I shall possess it?” (15:8).

The Lord graciously adapted Himself to Abram’s culture by “cutting a covenant” with him. In that day, there were no written contracts. When two men wanted to make a contract, or covenant, they would take some sacrificial animals, split them in two, and the parties of the covenant would ratify it by walking between the split halves of the animals. There are different guesses as to what this symbolized. Some say that it meant to invoke that the same thing that happened to the animals might happen to the party who broke the covenant. Others say it pointed to the essential unity of the two parties, and that there is life and strength in unity, death in separation. Thus the two parties were solemnly signifying their commitment to the covenant.

God took that cultural convention and used it to assure Abram concerning God’s promise about the land. Abram prepared the animals, but then fell into a deep sleep. In this condition, he heard the Lord prophesy concerning the future of his descendants and he saw a smoking oven and flaming torch, symbolizing the Lord, pass between the animal pieces, thus ratifying the covenant. Abram himself did not pass between the animal pieces, because this was a unilateral covenant, dependent only on the Lord. The Lord went on to restate the promise concerning the land (15:18-21) and even to expand it to include all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates River, boundaries which were approximated under the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 4:21), but which still await complete fulfillment. All this was God’s gracious assurance to Abram concerning His promise about the land. These verses show us that ...

God wants believers to feel assured about His promises.

This is especially true about God’s promise of eternal life to all who believe in Jesus Christ. If you have trusted in Christ as your sin-bearer, as Abram had done (15:6), then God wants you to be assured about your standing before Him. If you are continually plagued by doubts about whether God accepts you, you won’t be able to grow in your walk with God or in your service for Him. We must be careful, since there is the danger of having false assurance, where you mistakenly think that things are right between you and God, but someday you will be shocked to hear Him say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). For sake of time, I cannot deal thoroughly with this. If you’re interested in a good treatment, I recommend John MacArthur’s book, Saved Without a Doubt [Victor Books, 1992]. But I want to explain the assurance which God here gave to Abram and apply it to us who know the Lord by faith in His provision in Christ.

1. Assurance rests on God’s sure promise, not on our shaky performance.

It is clear in God’s dealings with Abram that God was the one who initiated, sustained, and followed through. God reminds him of this in verse 7: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” Abram didn’t dream up the idea of moving to Canaan and starting a new religion. He didn’t map out a master strategy for taking the land. God did it. God was the one who promised; Abram just received what God promised.

Here God initiates a covenant with Abram. God didn’t negotiate the terms; He announced them. So perhaps “promise” would be a better term. The promise was that God would give the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. The physical boundaries of the land are given to show that it was the literal land that was in view. You know the history of Abram’s descendants, how they never fully claimed and conquered the land God had promised them. They came close under David and Solomon. But then the nation was divided and they were finally taken into captivity. After a remnant returned, they were under the domination of the Greeks and then the Romans. Then, in A.D. 70, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus and the Jews were dispersed. God’s promise to Abram went unfulfilled.

There are two main ways of dealing with this in terms of biblical interpretation. The amillennialists say that these promises concerning the land will never be fulfilled literally with Israel, but only spiritually in the church. (Some amillennialists say that this was fulfilled with Solomon, and thus there is no future fulfillment.) The premillennialists interpret these promises to Abram concerning the land in their normal sense. That is, God will yet do exactly as He said. Abram’s physical descendants through Isaac and Jacob (the Jews) will inherit the land of Canaan to the borders described here. It will happen when Christ returns and literally reigns on the throne of David.

There are good men on both sides of the debate. It makes the most sense to me to take these promises in their normal sense. God promised a piece of land to Abram’s descendants, and I think He is going to keep His word. It’s easier for me to believe that, living since 1948, when the Jews were given part of the land again after 1,900 years, than for those who lived before then. But it’s refreshing to read F. B. Meyer (born in 1847), who wrote, “Somehow the descendants of Abraham shall yet inherit their own land, secured to them by the covenant of God. Those rivers shall yet form their boundary lines: for ‘the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it’” (Abraham [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 72). It’s exciting to live in a day when we can see the first glimmer of the fulfillment of God’s promise made to Abram 4,000 years ago. Verse 18 makes it clear that it’s a done deal: God affirms, “I have given this land” to your descendants.

Abram saw a smoking oven and a flaming torch pass between the animal pieces (15:17), which are symbols of God. They would have reminded Moses’ readers of the pillar of cloud and fire which had accompanied them in the wilderness. A similar manifestation of God occurred when Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. There were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain (Exod. 19:16). These two symbols, the fire and the cloud, as Alexander Maclaren observes, point to the double aspect of God’s nature, that “He can never be completely known; He is never completely hid.” But also, “It speaks of that twofold aspect of the divine nature, by which to hearts that love He is gladsome light, and to unloving ones He is threatening darkness. As to the Israelites the pillar was light, and to the Egyptians darkness and terror; so the same God is joy to some, and dread to others” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 1:109).

The significant thing about the vision is that God alone passed between the animal pieces. It was a unilateral covenant, dependent on God alone. All Abram could do was receive what God provided.

Just as God gave Abram a graphic picture of His covenant and its ratification to assure him, He has given us a graphic picture of the New Covenant He has made with us through Christ. In the symbols of the Lord’s Supper, we have a visual reminder that God has entered into a covenant with us and that He will keep His promises. He initiated it by sending His Son to die for us. He chose us when we were dead in our sins. He sealed the covenant with Christ’s blood. All we can do is receive what He has done. Our assurance of salvation doesn’t depend on our shaky performance, but rather on God’s sure promise. If our salvation rests on our choice of God, then you can never be sure of it. But if it rests on God’s sovereign choice of us and on the finished work of Christ, we can be assured that “He who began a good work in [us] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

There is a story told of Martin Luther, that one day the devil approached him and tried to get him to doubt his salvation by presenting the reformer with a long list of sins of which he was guilty. When he had finished, Luther said to him, “Think a little harder; you must have forgotten some.” The devil did this and came up with more to add to the list. At the conclusion of this, Luther simply said, “That’s fine. Now write across that list in red ink, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin.” There was nothing the devil could say to that. Assurance depends on God’s sure promise, not on our shaky performance.

“But,” you ask, “isn’t there something we must do to have assurance?” Yes, with Abram, we must believe in God’s promise.

2. Assurance is for believers, not skeptics.

This assurance concerning the land follows the declaration that Abram believed in the Lord (15:6). As we’ve seen, this means that Abram believed God’s promise concerning his seed who would be the Savior. And yet, right after God verbally confirmed the promise of the land (15:7), Abram asked for more confirmation (15:8)! It sounds as if Abram was doubting God.

But we can know that Abram wasn’t doubting God by God’s response. God knows our motives. You will recall that when the angel appeared to Zecharias and told him of God’s promise to give him a son, John the Baptist, he replied, “How shall I know this?” He asked in unbelief and as a result was struck dumb until John’s birth (Luke 1:20). When the angel appeared to Mary, she said virtually the same words: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). And yet she was not punished. The angel explained things to her. What was the difference between Zecharias and Mary? He asked in unbelief, she in belief. How do we know? By God’s response. So here, we know that Abram asked in the spirit of, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” not in doubt, because God confirmed Abram’s question.

Also, as I already said, Abram’s submission to the Lord is seen in his reverently addressing God as “Adonai Yahweh.” He wasn’t shaking his fist in God’s face, demanding an answer. He was submissively asking for the confirmation he needed, if it pleased the Sovereign Lord to give it.

Abram’s submissive spirit is further revealed in his obedient response to God’s command to bring these animals (15:9). Some see significance in the number and kind of animals, but I have trouble putting much trust in those interpretations. Apparently God also told Abram to divide the animals; at least in some way it was clear to him what he was supposed to do. He prepared the animals and waited. Nothing happened. Then the birds of prey began coming down to get the carcasses, and Abram drove them away (15:11). Many commentators see symbolism in this; for example, that it is a prophecy of the future enemies of the nation Israel attacking her, or that it is Satan trying to get God’s people. Maybe. I see it as an evidence of Abram’s obedient faith in waiting on the Lord, even when the Lord delayed His answer. Others might have given up when there was no immediate response, and let the birds of prey distract them from meeting with God. But Abram wasn’t about to be distracted. By faith he did what God told him to do. By faith he waited for the greater confirmation of faith for which he sought. God gives greater assurance to believers, not to skeptics.

God doesn’t meet the skeptic’s demand for proof, because the need of the skeptic isn’t for evidence, but for repentance. But He does give assurance to those who have put their trust in the Savior if they come to Him with a submissive, obedient heart, and ask Him for the assurance they need to go on believing. As Jesus said, “For to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (Matt. 25:29).

“Well, then,” you say, “how can I have the faith I need to get assurance? It sounds like when employers tell you that you need experience to be hired but nobody will hire you to give you the experience!” The answer is, we need to repent of our unbelief. Unbelief is not a condition which we are helpless to remedy. Unbelief is sin; we choose not to believe because we don’t want to turn from our rebellion against God. But if we’ll submit to Him as our Sovereign Lord and persevere in seeking Him in spite of things which would distract us, He will give us the assurance we need to go on believing, even though we never realize God’s promises in our lifetime (as Abram did not). And so we must yield our will to God and cry out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Assurance is for believers, not skeptics.

But what if, like Abram, we die not seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises? How can we know God’s assurance in the face of delays and trials?

3. Assurance is confirmed by God’s prophetic word.

God here tells Abram that he can “know for certain” some things about the future (15:13-16). Knowledge about the future gives assurance in the present. Abram could go on trusting God concerning His promises because he knew that God was working things out in His great timetable for history, which was far bigger than Abram’s life span.

God reveals to Abram that his “descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (15:13). This is a prophecy of the Egyptian bondage, which lasted 430 years (here rounded off). Also, God reveals that He will judge the nation they will serve and that afterward they will come out with many possessions. This literally happened as the Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors for things before they left, and thus plundered the Egyptians (Exod. 12:35-36). But Abram would die at a good old age. (By the way, verse 15 is an early promise of life after death. God is saying that Abram would be reunited with his ancestors.) Then, in the fourth generation (counting a generation as 100 years, which fit that age), Israel would return to Canaan.

Then the Lord adds a phrase which lets us peek into the mysteries of His eternal purpose: “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (15:17). “Amorite” is here a general term for all the residents of Canaan. That phrase tells us that God has a predetermined limit to which He allows nations to go in their sin before He steps in and judges them. It shows us the awesome sovereignty of God, who knows in advance when the sins of a nation will be ripe for judgment.

It also shows us the great patience of the Lord, who “is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Even though it meant that His chosen people would endure 400 years of hardship, God would not let them invade the land and wipe out the wicked people there until those people had filled up their iniquity in His sight. What’s the practical point of God’s prophetic word to Abram here? It is that Abram could endure without seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises in his lifetime, because he was assured by God’s prophetic word. And Abram’s descendants could endure 400 years of bondage in Egypt without doubting God, because they knew that God had predicted it and even ordained it, and that it was working into His sovereign purpose for the nations.

And that’s the great value of biblical prophecy for us today. While God’s timetable is not always to our liking, it is always on schedule. While it seems that the wicked are prospering, God is keeping tally of their sins. When His time comes, judgment will fall. He is working all things in history after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)! Even if we as His people suffer persecution or trials, we can trust His sovereign plan and be assured that God will fulfill His promises to His covenant people. Whatever view you take of biblical prophecy, the bottom line is the same: God’s side is gonna win! We can trust Him and be assured that our salvation is secure because His Word reveals His great plan for the future!


Adoniram Judson, the great 19th century missionary to Burma, lost two wives and several children to death in that difficult land. He saw very little fruit from his labors, and had many discouragements and setbacks. Then a war between England and Burma broke out and Judson, being a foreigner, was imprisoned in squalid conditions. There, sick with fever, he received a letter from a friend who asked, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” Judson penned his classic reply, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God!”

God wants you to have that same assurance of His promises to you. Perhaps you’re in some difficult trial. Look to the sure promises of God’s Word, not to your own shaky performance. Submit to Him as the Sovereign Lord and repent of any unbelief, because God’s assurance is for believers, not skeptics. And know for certain that His prophetic word will be fulfilled exactly as He has revealed it in His Word. Jesus shall reign! Then, no matter what your circumstances, you can say, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God!”

Discussion Questions

  1. What causes you the most doubts in your walk with God?
  2. When are we especially vulnerable to doubt and the attack of the devil? See 1 Pet. 5:8 and its context.
  3. Is it contradictory to say that assurance depends on God’s promise, not our performance and yet to say that we must believe to have assurance? Why/why not?
  4. Can a person who does not believe in God’s sovereign election to salvation have assurance of salvation? Why/why not?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Assurance

Lesson 33: Why We Have Family Problems (Genesis 16:1-6)

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There are few joys in this life that compare to a harmonious family life. The late Dr. M. R. De Haan said, “The nearest thing to heaven on earth is a happy Christian home.” At the same time, few things in this world are as stressful as a home filled with strife. Solomon, with his 1,000 wives and concubines, must have known what he was talking about when he wrote, “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Prov. 25:24).

Of course, no home is going to be free of all conflict this side of heaven. We all struggle with the flesh. When self-centered sinners live in close contact with one another, conflict is inevitable. Children in even the best of Christian homes will fight. Christian husbands and wives will have misunderstandings, disagreements, and hurt feelings. We should not expect perfection. But at the same time, a home that follows God’s plan for the family can be such a joyous, warm, loving experience that we can agree with Dr. De Haan that it’s the nearest thing to heaven on earth.

Is your home like that? If you must admit that it falls short, take heart! So did Abram’s home. There was strife in his home because he and Sarai went along with some cultural customs regarding the family and violated some of God’s principles. The conflict continues even to this day between Abram’s descendants through Ishmael (the Arabs) and Isaac (the Jews). But by learning from Abram’s mistakes, we can avoid the problems he fell into and repair the damage in our families. The incident recorded in Genesis 16:1-6 teaches us that ...

We have family problems when we go along with wrong cultural customs rather than follow God’s plan.

In every culture there are some elements that are favorable to family life, some that are neutral, and some that are harmful. As God’s people, if we want to have harmonious families, we must think biblically about our culture, and resist those customs that are adverse to God’s plan for the family. I want to focus on three lessons:

1. Our culture puts pressure on families to violate God’s Word.

The pressure on families is greater now than at any other time in history because of the modern mass media that bombard us with ideas and examples that erode the family structure: “Illicit sex is exciting; in fact, it’s not really illicit. It’s O.K. And everybody does it!” Or, “Nobody stays committed to a troubled marriage. You deserve some happiness. Besides, it’s better for the kids to live with one parent than to live in a house filled with constant arguing. Bail out!” Or, “Happiness comes from financial success. Both husband and wife need a career to be fulfilled and to get ahead financially. Your career comes first.”

Bruce Wilkinson of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries observes, “The church, reflecting trends in society, no longer takes marriage as seriously as God does!” (Promotional letter, italics his.) He quotes a law professor who points out that it’s easier in this country to walk away from a marriage than from a commitment to buy a used car. Most contracts can’t be unilaterally abrogated, but marriages “can be terminated by practically anyone at any time, and without cause.” And even Christians are bailing out by the thousands.

In Abram and Sarai’s day, the cultural pressures were perhaps not as pervasive as they are now, but they were still powerful. Like fish who don’t realize they’re wet, we all tend to be so immersed in our culture that we don’t realize how much it affects us. In their culture, there was a strong pressure to have children, especially sons. Sons guaranteed that your family name would be carried on. Sons showed that you were prosperous and blessed. To be childless was a mark of reproach. This stigma was so strong that if a wife could not produce children, the custom was for her to give one of her servant girls to her husband as a concubine. The children of that union became the children of the wife.

In Abram’s case, the pressure to have a son was increased by two factors. The first was his name, which meant, “father of many,” or “exalted father.” In chapter 17, God gives him a new name, Abraham, “father of a multitude.” You can imagine how Abram must have felt when a band of traders passed by his tents. “What is your name?” they would ask. “Abram,” he replied. “That’s wonderful,” they would respond, “how many children do you have?” “None.” “None?” They would hold back the laughter as they glanced at one another. “But,” Abram would add, “God has promised to give me a son and make me the father of a great nation.” Right!

The second reason Abram felt pressure to have a son was God’s repeated promise to give him a son. And yet he was now 85, Sarai was 75, and even with the longer life spans in that day, they were getting close to that age when it becomes physically impossible to reproduce. If God was going to come through, it seemed that it had to be soon.

It was in that context that Sarai came up with her plan in accordance with the custom of the day to give Abram her maid (16:2). Perhaps the thought had crossed Abram’s mind before and he had dismissed it, not wanting to threaten Sarai. But now it was coming from her. Besides, Hagar was an attractive, younger woman. She was most likely part of the dowry which Pharaoh had given Abram for Sarai when they had gone down to Egypt (Gen. 12:16). So Abram’s past sin of going down to Egypt and trying to pawn off Sarai as his sister comes back to haunt him in a different form. He yielded to this culturally acceptable custom, went in to Hagar, and she became pregnant with his child. I draw three lessons from this part of the story:

(1) The greatest temptations often come from those who are closest to us. I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that if Abram’s friend, Mamre, had suggested this, Abram would have resisted the idea. But when Sarai suggested it, he was vulnerable. That’s the way we’re made. We’re most influenced by those we are closest to emotionally. Satan got to Adam when he listened to his wife (Gen. 3:17). The same phrase here (16:2) warns us that we need to be on guard not to be wrongly influenced by those closest to us and not to tempt those closest to us. The temptation to cool your zeal for the Lord will most likely come from a lukewarm mate. Be on guard (Luke 14:26)!

(2) Right motives are not enough; we need right methods. Both Abram and Sarai had pure motives. They wanted to bring about God’s will by producing the heir God had promised. They wanted to help God out. Their motives were right; but their method was wrong. In God’s work, methods are often just as important as the results. The ultimate question is not the bottom line, the results. It is rather, how did you get there? Did the result come from dependence upon God or was it produced by the flesh? Is God the source, or is fallen human nature?

This is a special problem for us, because Americans are a pragmatic people. If it works, it must be right. After all, look at the results! “These methods are proven to build your church!” But notice that Abram got the intended results with Hagar. He got a son. But it wasn’t from the Lord, and it created all sorts of problems in the short and long run. Right motives must be accompanied by right methods.

(3) Right methods involve seeking the Lord, not using culturally acceptable means to escape our problems. When Sarai said, “... the Lord has prevented me” (16:2), it should have set off warning lights. If the Lord has prevented you, then it’s wrong to try an end run to get by other means what He has prevented you. When the Lord has shut you up to some trial, be careful of removing it through your schemes. It is permissible to work to alleviate the problem if you truly seek the Lord in the process, submitting to His sovereign hand. But if you resort to human solutions that leave God out or just give God polite recognition in passing, you’re in trouble.

Sometimes people ask why I am against the various 12 Step programs. They mention a Higher Power, and they seem to help people. My problem with them is that no matter who or what your Higher Power is, the programs still work. If any Higher Power will do, even if you call it God, then the Higher Power is not essential to the process. Also, the programs have a selfish focus. Their goal is to help people overcome their problems so they can be happy, not to deal with their sins so that they can learn to please and glorify God. So even though the programs often “work,” the results come from the flesh, not from God’s Spirit. Right methods involve seeking the Lord and depending on Him.

So we’ll have family problems when we yield to wrong cultural customs instead of following God’s plan. And our culture puts pressure on our families to violate God’s Word.

2. Pressure coupled with passivity leads to problems.

One of the greatest problems in American marriages is the passive male. By passive, I mean not assuming responsibility for the spiritual direction of the marriage and family. The man dumps it on his wife, buries himself in his job, and tells himself that he is being responsible by providing financially.

But it’s not just an American phenomenon. It was a problem 4,000 years ago. In chapter 15, we find Abram listening to the word of the Lord (15:1, 4); but in chapter 16, he listens to the voice of Sarai (16:2). Abram passively goes along with Sarai’s suggestion, and then, when problems result, he tells her to do whatever she thinks is right (16:6). But he didn’t deal with it himself. He allowed Sarai to mistreat Hagar, who was now also his wife, when he should have protected her.

I’m not implying that it’s always wrong to listen to your wife. Often that is the smartest thing a husband can do! God has given us our wives to give us wisdom and insight which we often lack. The problem isn’t listening to your wife; the problem is abdicating spiritual leadership if your wife suggests something that isn’t from the Lord.

God is strangely absent from verses 1-6. He is given the credit (or blame) for preventing Sarai from conceiving, and His name is invoked to justify her point of view (16:5). But He is never sought. Abram didn’t bother to ask the Lord whether this crucial decision, which would affect the rest of his life and the rest of human history, was God’s will.

Please observe that the Lord didn’t stop Abram from doing this. All He would have had to do was say, “Abram, don’t do it!” But God was silent. In fact, the biblical record indicates that God didn’t talk to Abram again for 13 years (compare 16:16 with 17:1). Why didn’t God stop Abram? The only answer I know is that Abram didn’t bother to ask the Lord for His counsel. God won’t step in and prevent His children from making some serious mistakes if they don’t seek Him.

Sometimes I hear someone say, “I’m going to go ahead with this action and if God wants to stop me, He can.” Or I’ve heard, “I’m going to marry this non-Christian because I’ve prayed about it and feel a peace about it.” You don’t need to pray about it! God has clearly forbidden it in His Word. If you pray about it, you’re sinning, because you’re asking God to change His holy standards. God isn’t impressed with your prayers unless your heart is ready to obey, and then He will reveal what we should do. But He won’t necessarily stop us if we don’t seek Him with an obedient heart.

These verses are so true to life. First a wife pressures her passive husband into a scheme to alleviate her embarrassment in the eyes of society. He goes along with things and she gets what she wanted. But it doesn’t satisfy her, so she blames him for the problems. (Verse 5: “May the wrong done me be upon you” has the nuance of, “It’s your fault!” The NIV reads, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.”) Rather than taking responsibility at this point, Abram responds, “Do whatever you want, dear.” He was acting like a wimp, not a patriarch!

What a nagging wife really wants from her husband is usually not the thing she’s nagging about. She wants her husband to take the loving leadership in the home God intended him to take. But so many Christian husbands are just like Abram here. He wants peace, and so he abdicates spiritual leadership to avoid further conflict. But it just frustrates his wife. She wants her husband to be the loving, responsible leader in the home. If he doesn’t know what to do, he can at least admit it and say, “Let’s search the Scriptures and seek the mind of the Lord on this matter.” And then he can lead her in doing that.

Notice the problems which resulted from Abram’s passivity: There was competition between Sarai and Hagar. Common sense could have predicted that. Every time you see polygamy in the Bible, you’ve got problems. God’s design was for one man and one woman to be together for life. It is impossible for a man (or woman) to be sexually involved with another partner without it causing severe problems of jealousy and competition.

Also, it led to false pride on Hagar’s part. She now boasted that she was better than Sarai. It led to conflict between Abram and Sarai. She blamed him for the situation: “You’re the one who wanted a son so bad! I was just trying to help you out, and look what it got me!” It led to false spirituality on Sarai’s part, as she piously claimed, “May the Lord judge between you and me.” In other words, “I’m in the right; God is on my side.” It led to Sarai mistreating Hagar. While Hagar was not without her own sin in the situation, she is the victim of the scheme. She really had no choice but to go to bed with her master, and then she got caught in the cross fire. Then, of course, Ishmael resulted from Abram’s passivity in going along with Sarai’s scheme. And his descendants have plagued the descendants of Isaac ever since.

These verses teach us that we should not give in to expedience, even if we have the right motives and are seeking a godly goal. If you give in to expedience, you never get what you were after. Sarai thought she would gain a son by Hagar, a son who would fulfill God’s promise. Instead, she gained contempt for Hagar and conflict with Abram. Suddenly Sarai was the outsider in her own home.

Also, be careful when you’re trying to escape pressure. God often allows pressure to drive us to greater trust in Him. He can remove the source of the pressure when we have learned to trust Him. If you bail out of your marriage because you’re unhappy, you may find immediate relief, but you and your children will reap long-term painful consequences because you have violated God’s principle of lifelong marriage. If as a husband you take the easy way toward peace by saying, “Whatever you want, dear,” rather than by sensitively leading your wife to work through things in a godly manner, you may get quick peace but long-term conflict. The main thing is to wait on the Lord and actively seek Him in every family problem.

So we’ve seen that our culture puts pressure on our families, and that pressure, coupled with passivity, leads to problems.

3. Following God’s plan for the family is the way to resist cultural pressure.

Abram told Sarai to do to Hagar what was good in Sarai’s sight (15:6). Bad counsel! He should have told her to do what was good in the Lord’s sight. The Bible gives us God’s blueprint for the family. The main goal of the Bible is to teach us how to love God and one another (Matt. 22:37-40). We don’t need to turn to worldly wisdom (which has flooded into the church through psychology) to learn how to get along in our families. At the heart of most psychological counsel is that you need to learn to love yourself and boost your self esteem. At the heart of God’s counsel is that you need to learn to deny yourself and boost your esteem for others. Invariably, when there is conflict in the home, it is because one or both partners are failing in personal devotion toward God and they are failing to apply God’s principles for loving one another.


By way of conclusion, let me list four action points suggested by this text.

1. Shift your focus from seeking personal fulfillment and happiness to seeking to please and glorify God. Christians have gotten caught up in our cultural pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness. We’ve fallen into the trap of using God and the Bible to make us happy. But if it doesn’t seem to be delivering the goods, then we bail out of our marriages or seek fulfillment in worldly pleasures, rather than submitting ourselves to God’s purpose for our personal and family lives. If you are unhappy in your marriage, the reason you should seek counsel is not so that you can become happy. You need to get help because a marriage marked by conflict does not please and glorify God. That should be your focus.

2. You cannot please and glorify God apart from saturating yourself with His Word. If you do not know God’s Word, you will simply be swept downstream with the powerful currents of our culture. As much as you need to eat to stay healthy, so you need to feed daily on God’s Word. Read it, memorize key verses, meditate on it, and seek to obey it. Psalm 1 promises blessing to the one who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, but who delights in God’s Word.

3. Strive to become a biblical thinker who challenges our culture with God’s Word, especially in family matters. Why should career success be your main goal in life? Why does your family need all the latest junk, instead of giving generously to God’s work? Why should your TV set be on for several hours every evening? Why should you run your schedule at a frenzied level like everybody else? How can your family develop a ministry mind-set? Become a biblical thinker!

4. Husbands need to assume loving leadership in the home and wives need to let them to take it. I’m not talking about becoming an Archie Bunker, who barks commands at his cowering wife and kids. That’s not biblical leadership! I am talking about leading by example from the strength of a growing, personal walk with God. The main job description for a husband is to love his wife sacrificially as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25). That means never acting selfishly, but always for the ultimate good of your family. If a husband focuses on his God-ordained responsibility out of a desire to glorify God and the wife on hers, there will not be competition, but complementarity. Husbands should learn to practice the servant leadership exemplified by the Lord Jesus. Husbands should always remember that an exhaustive study of police records has shown that no woman has ever shot her husband while he was doing the dishes (Reader’s Digest [11/79])!

If we follow wrong cultural customs rather than God’s plan, we’ll have family problems. But, if we’ll focus on pleasing and glorifying God by obedience to His Word, if we learn to think biblically and lead lovingly by example in our homes, we’ll avoid many family problems and begin to experience a little bit of heaven on earth.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some pressures which our culture puts on the family that didn’t exist 100 years ago?
  2. Why is passivity among American men so common? What can Christian husbands and wives do about it?
  3. What are some ungodly American values and customs we need to challenge? What adverse affects do they have on the family?
  4. What do the biblical headship of the husband and submission of the wife mean practically? Are these roles valid for today?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Home, Cultural Issues, Discipleship, Leadership, Marriage, Parenting

Lesson 34: The God Who Sees (Genesis 16:7-16)

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Dr. James Boice tells a poignant story about an incident from his childhood. In the closing days of World War II, when Boice was seven, his father was in the Air Force, stationed in Louisiana, with the family. Many servicemen were being discharged, but since there was the risk that discharge orders could be canceled if a man didn’t leave immediately after receiving them, Boice’s family had begun to pack.

When the orders came, school was in session, so James was told that the family would leave as soon as he got home that afternoon. He was so excited he could hardly wait. He jumped off the school bus, ran up the steps to his house, and found that the door was locked. Surprised and a bit subdued, he ran around to the back door and found that it was locked too. At last he found a window he knew would be unlocked, pried it open and crawled through. To his shock, the room was empty. So was the entire house. As this seven-year-old boy made his way slowly from room to room, he got the sinking sensation that in the rush of packing and leaving quickly before the orders were canceled, his family had forgotten and left him behind. Actually his parents had gone off on a last minute errand and were waiting outside in the car for him to come home from school while he was inside wandering through the empty house. But it was a sad little boy they saw backing out of the window after his tour of the abandoned house. (Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 1:295-296.)

It’s terrible to feel abandoned by your parents. It’s also tough to feel abandoned by God. Most of us have felt that way at one time or another. Maybe things were going well and suddenly the bottom dropped out of your life. In the confusion of the events, you wondered, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s how Hagar must have felt when she fled from Sarai. Things had seemed to look up for a brief moment. Her lowly status as a servant had changed when Abram, according to the custom of the day, had taken her to produce a child on behalf of the barren Sarai. But when Hagar became pregnant, she communicated an air of superiority toward Sarai, who then mistreated her. Finally, things got so bad that Hagar took off in the direction of her homeland, out through the desert. It was a dangerous thing for a woman to do. She could have been abused or taken captive by nomadic traders. Being pregnant, she could have lost her baby from the rigors of traveling in that rugged terrain. Having had to escape, probably in the night, she would have had few supplies. But somehow she made it to a spring of water in the desert and sat down exhausted.

Hagar knew about Abram’s God, the living and true God. She must have wondered if that God knew or cared about her situation. No doubt she was confused. What could a pregnant, single woman do, even if she reached her homeland? If she had family there, they would have been too poor to help her. Her future was uncertain, her past too painful to think about. She felt abandoned by everyone on earth and forgotten by God in heaven.

It’s in that context that we read, “Now the angel of the Lord found her” (16:7). What a beautiful picture of our compassionate God, who is concerned even for this poor, confused servant girl! The angel tells her what to do and then promises that he will multiply her descendants through the child she is carrying. Hagar, encouraged and awed by this experience, gives a new name to God--”El Roi,” “the God who sees.” She then returns to Abram and Sarai and Ishmael is born.

There are two dominant themes in these verses: First, God sees Hagar (16:7-12); and second, Hagar sees God (16:13-16). God saw Hagar’s affliction; as a result, Hagar saw God’s mercy and submitted to Him. Applying it to us, we can put it:

Because God sees our affliction, we can see His mercy and submit to Him.

This story is encouraging if you are suffering and feel that God has abandoned you. He has not forgotten; He sees your affliction. Because He sees, you can see His mercy, and submit to Him.

1. God sees our affliction (16:7-12).

God saw Hagar’s affliction: “The angel of the Lord found her ....” Isn’t that great! The Good Shepherd went looking for her. God is a seeking God! We may think that we found Him, but the reality is, He found us. We were lost and confused, wandering away from Him. He came looking and found us! If you know Christ as Savior, you realize that you didn’t think, “I need a little help in my life. I’ll decide to let Jesus be my Savior.” The Son of Man did not come to seek and to save those who needed a little help. He came to seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10)! It is our sinful pride that keeps us from seeing our true condition: We are lost! We must own up to that fact. But the good news is, no one, not even a lowly Egyptian servant girl, is too lost in God’s sight. The angel of the Lord found Hagar!

Who is this angel of the Lord? There is debate among scholars, but I believe that it is the Lord Jesus Christ in a preincarnate appearance. In verse 13 it is stated that it was the Lord who spoke to Hagar. (See also, Gen. 18:1-2, 17, 22, 27, 33, 19:1; 22:11-12; 24:7; 31:11, 13; 48:15-16.) So Hagar was found by and was speaking to the Lord Jesus Christ!

Hagar could flee from the presence of Sarai, but she couldn’t flee from the presence of the Lord. You can try to run from difficult circumstances, but you can’t hide from the God who put you there. Notice the irony of verse 8: The Lord knows Hagar’s name and her station in life, yet He asks her where she has come from and where she is going. Wherever in the Bible you find God asking a question, you can assume that He is not looking for information. He wants the person to think about the situation. The Lord wanted Hagar to think about two things: Where have you come from? and, Where are you going? She had come from being Sarai’s maid. As such, she was not free to flee from her duty. Where was she going? She really didn’t know. But, clearly, she wasn’t seeking after the Lord and His will.

Those are good questions to ask yourself when you’re in a difficult situation: Where have you come from? Did God allow that trial for some reason? Where are you going? Did you seek His permission to run? Our real need in a bad situation is not to escape, but to seek and to submit to the Lord. The Lord has some bad news and some good news for Hagar, and for us, at such times. First, the bad news: Hagar needed to go back and submit to Sarai. The good news: then God would bless her.

A. The “bad” news: our need in affliction is to submit to God.

We don’t like to hear that. We sputter, “But, Lord, don’t you know how I’ve been mistreated? Don’t you know how bad it is? Give me the blessing first, then I’ll submit.” But God’s way is, submit first; then He blesses. Obedience always comes before blessing.

Submit is a dirty word in our day. We Americans have a history of not submitting to anyone who oppresses us. Our country was founded because the settlers said, “The king can’t do that to us! We’ll revolt!” If we’re treated unfairly or harshly, we stand up for our rights. The very word, “submit,” makes us mad. We don’t like it.

But the Lord, who made us and who knows our real need, says, “Your number one need in a time of trial is to learn to submit to Me. And you don’t learn to submit to Me by running from the situation.” Ouch! Can’t you feel yourself wanting to fight? Don’t you want to cry out, “But, God, You don’t understand!”? But He does understand. He says to Hagar, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.”

The book of First Peter is about submission to authority in a time of trial. The Christians to whom Peter wrote were suffering, some as slaves under harsh masters, some as wives under disobedient husbands, all as citizens under an unjust government. Peter’s word to each group of victims was, “Submit” (1 Pet. 2:13, 18; 3:1). He sums it up, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7). Your number one need in a time of trial is to submit to God--humble yourself under His mighty hand. He is in control of the circumstances. He cares for you; don’t doubt His love. There are lessons which our rebellious nature cannot learn except by submitting to God in trials, even when we’re being treated wrongly or unfairly.

Some people never grow in the Lord because they have a habit of running from difficult situations where He has put them for their training. They had problems with their parents as teenagers, so they rebelled. They get a job and have problems, so they quit. They get married and have conflict, so they walk away from it. They seek counseling, but they don’t like what the counselor tells them, so they either quit or else look for a counselor who agrees with them. They join a church, but can’t get along with the people or don’t like something, so they find another church. But guess what? They discover that the new church has the same problems.

At some point they need to realize that they’re carrying their own baggage with them. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The problem is, they’ve never learned to submit to God and to allow Him to use the authority structures He has ordained to sandpaper off their rough edges. God sees our need in our affliction: To submit to Him in the difficult situations where He has sovereignly placed us.

While that’s a difficult word, it’s also a merciful word. As I said, Hagar may have suffered greatly or even perished if she had continued her flight into the wilderness. God often mercifully checks us in our disobedience to prevent us from even greater damage. The way of obedience is hard, but the way of disobedience is even more difficult. It was better for Hagar to be associated with Abram and Sarai, even with Sarai’s harshness, than with her native Egyptians, who worshiped false gods. It’s better for you to be in a local church, with all the imperfect people and their faults, than to be in the world, where God is not known.

Some of you may be in trying situations right now, but you haven’t submitted to God. Maybe your pattern has been to run from one difficult situation to the next, always blaming others or complaining about bad luck, but never humbling yourself under God’s mighty hand. You won’t know His blessing until submit to Him in whatever circumstances He has placed you. It’s hard news, but it’s not really bad.

B. The good news: When we submit to God in our affliction, He will bless us and our descendants.

The Lord says that He heard Hagar’s affliction, not her prayer (16:11). Whether Hagar was calling out to the Lord or not, we don’t know. But the Lord graciously hears our affliction, even when we fail to call out to Him as we should. But He not only hears and sees our affliction, He sees the future after our affliction is over. The Lord goes on to tell Hagar how He will greatly multiply her descendants. Concerning the son in her womb, the Lord tells her to name him Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because the Lord heard her affliction. Every time she called her son’s name, Hagar would be reminded of God’s faithfulness, that He had heard her affliction.

God reveals that Ishmael will be a wild donkey of a man, meaning, a strong, independent, untamed man. He will be a fighter, whose hand will be against everyone. In the last line of verse 12, the word means both “to the east of” and “over against.” Both were true; Ishmael’s Arab descendants both lived to the east of and were over against (in opposition to) Isaac’s descendants. There is a divine mystery here: God sovereignly chose Isaac and his line through Jacob while He set Ishmael and his descendants against His chosen people. And yet Ishmael and his race were responsible for their sin and rebellion against God. All we can say is, “How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). But it was enough for Hagar to know that her son would not, like her, be enslaved, and that he would prosper. Thus it was a word of hope to her.

There’s an application here for us: God allows U-turns in the desert! Even though we’ve run from God, if we will turn around and submit to Him in our trials, His blessing will be on us and our descendants. We can be assured that He will work out His sovereign plan for us and for our children if we will make a U-turn and submit to Him.

So the first great theme in these verses is that God saw Hagar. But Hagar also saw God. When she realized that God had seen her, she responded by acknowledging that she had seen God and she named both the Lord and the spring after her experience. Then she returned to Abram and Sarai in submission to the Lord. Even so, when we realize that God sees us in our affliction, we will gain a fresh glimpse of God.

2. We see God in His mercy and submit to Him (16:13-16).

Hagar wouldn’t have seen the Lord if it hadn’t been for her trial. God often uses trials to open us up to some fresh vision of Him which we would have missed if we hadn’t been in the difficult situation. “Hagar called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God who sees’” (16:13). God sees! Not only does God see, but even better, God sees me, and in spite of my confusion and rebellion, He lets me get a glimpse of Him!

Scholars disagree about how to interpret the Hebrew of the last sentence of verse 13. It literally reads, “I have seen here after the One who saw me.” The expression is almost identical to Exodus 33:23, where God tells Moses that he will see His back, but not His face, for no one can see His face and live. So the meaning may be, “I have caught a glimpse of God.” But since there is the motif in the Old Testament that no one can see God and live, because His glory and holiness are too awesome, some understand Hagar to be marveling that she has actually seen God and is still alive. (The NASB takes this interpretation.) The well was called “Beer-la-hai-roi,” which means either, “the well of the Living One who sees me,” or, as the scholarly C. F. Keil argues, “the well of the seeing alive,” since Hagar saw God and remained alive. The idea is, Hagar saw the God who saw her need and was merciful to her in spite of her sin. In our trials, ...

A. We see God who is merciful in spite of our sin.

When God meets you in a time of trial, as He did with Hagar, and you see Him, your first thought is, “Oh, God, how can You be so merciful to me, a sinner? I’m in this mess because of my own rebellion and sin, and yet You didn’t strike me down or let me go. You directed me in the way I need to go and promised me Your blessing if I will do it. Thank You, Lord!” You gain a fresh glimpse of the mercy of God.

When that happens, it becomes a source of testimony to others. They named the well with this unusual name, Beer-la-hai-roi: “The well of the Living One who sees me,” or, “the well of the seeing alive.” When travelers asked, “How did this place ever get this name?” the story would be told again, how God met Hagar there in her time of need, told her what to do and promised His blessing. In the same way, when God has met you in your trial and you’ve seen Him in a fresh way, use it to tell others of His great mercy.

B. God’s mercy moves us to submit to Him.

“The kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Hagar submitted to God by returning to Abram and Sarai. Submission is the proper response when we see God and His mercy toward us in Christ. The text says that Abram (not Hagar) called the name of his son Ishmael. That means that Hagar told Abram of her meeting with God and of God’s command to name the boy “God hears.” That was a gentle rebuke to Abram, who had taken Hagar as his wife because he was beginning to wonder if God did, in fact, hear. He was trying to help God out.

But in our affliction, when it seems that God has forgotten us and that He isn’t hearing our prayers, we need to learn to submit to Him, not resort to our human schemes. We need to go back and put ourselves under the authority structures God has ordained for our benefit. If you’re a teenager, you need to submit to your parents. If you’re married, you need to commit yourself to your partner, in spite of the difficulties. If you’re hopping from church to church, disgruntled with each one because of the impossible people who have wronged you, you need to commit yourself to a church where Christ is honored and His Word is preached. Stick it out and work through the problems in a spirit of submission to the leadership God has placed in that church, even though they aren’t perfect. As one wag said, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll spoil it!”


Dr. James Dobson tells of a time when he watched his daughter’s pet hamster trying to gnaw its way out of its cage to what, no doubt, looked to the hamster like freedom. But Dobson saw what the hamster did not: the family’s pet dog, watching expectantly from a few feet away. If the hamster had worked its way free, it would have met sudden death. The cage was really its protection and blessing.

We’re often like that pet hamster. We try to break free from some confinement or trial that God has put us in, thinking that then we could really live. But God sees that our real need is to submit to Him in the trial. We need to realize that even as God saw Hagar, He sees us. He especially sees our affliction. If in our trials we will look, like Hagar, we will see God in His mercy toward us. Our response will be to submit ourselves to His loving purpose. The French writer, Paul Claudel, wrote, “Christ did not come to do away with suffering; He did not come to explain it; He came to fill it with His presence.” I pray that if you’re suffering, you’ll see the God who sees you.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is every trial from God or can trials come from Satan? Does it make any difference with regard to our response?
  2. Is it always God’s will for a Christian in a difficult trial to submit? Does submission mean not seeking a way out? When can we rightly seek a way out (e.g., of a difficult job)?
  3. Is it ever right for Christians to stand up for their rights, to rebel against their government, or to fight for the abolition of unjust social institutions, such as slavery? When? How?
  4. Is God endorsing slavery by making Hagar go back and submit to Sarai? Was God being unfair to her?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 35: Why We Do Not Baptize Infants (Genesis 17 and other Scriptures)

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Since in our study of Genesis we have come to chapter 17, which is one of the main Old Testament Scriptures used in the argument for infant baptism, and since we have people who attend our church from many denominational backgrounds, and since we are having a baptism today, I thought it would be helpful to explain why we do not baptize infants, but rather baptize by immersion only those making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Few subjects arouse more controversy among Christians than that of baptism. The Quakers do not practice it at all. Lutherans, Episcopalians, Orthodox Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church officially hold that baptism is the direct means of regeneration (the new birth). Since those churches baptize infants, they believe that those babies are being saved through their baptisms. For example, in a pamphlet titled, “Why Baptize Children?” Lutheran theologian John Theodore Mueller writes, “... Holy Baptism is the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, by which the new birth is wrought” (pp. 10-11, Concordia Publishing House). Presbyterians baptize infants, but most of them stop short of saying that baptized babies are saved. They view it as introducing the children into the covenant community and as serving as the sign and seal of the new birth, which it is hoped the child will enter in the future as he grows up in that community.

I’ll say at the outset that many of my favorite theologians held to infant baptism. They were all men whose scholarship and godliness far exceed my own. I find myself agreeing with much, for example, that John Calvin writes about the meaning and significance of baptism (Institutes, IV:XV & XVI). But when he applies it to infants, I think he is utterly inconsistent with himself and with Scripture. While I strongly disagree with infant baptism, I think we must be gracious and agree to disagree with those who hold that view. But if anyone teaches that the new birth is conveyed through water baptism, whether with infants or adults, he is teaching serious heresy on that crucial point of doctrine. The Scripture is clear that the new birth comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone (John 3:1-16).

First I want to set forth fairly the arguments in favor of infant baptism; then I want to present why we do not baptize infants and show what Scripture teaches about the meaning of baptism. It is Scripture and not church tradition which is our authority on this important matter.

Why some churches baptize infants:

The main argument for infant baptism is the connection between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New, especially as seen in the context of the covenant community. This is sometimes buttressed with the example of Noah, whose entire family entered the ark and was thus saved from the flood. First Peter 3:20-21 connects Noah’s flood with baptism. Also, in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Paul states that all Israel was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. Since this included the children, it is argued that they are proper subjects of baptism. But the main argument is the continuity between circumcision in the covenant community under the old covenant and baptism with us, who are under the new covenant.

In Genesis 17:7 God makes it clear to Abraham that He is establishing His covenant both with him and with his descendants (“seed”) after him as an everlasting covenant. In verse 12, the Lord stipulates that every male eight days old must be circumcised. An uncircumcised male must be cut off from his people because he has broken God’s covenant (17:14). Thus the sign of the covenant was commanded to be administered to infants. In Abraham’s case, he had already believed in God when the sign was performed; but in Isaac’s case, it was done before he was old enough to believe in God’s promise, with a view to his believing later.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul states (Col. 2:11-12), “And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Thus he connects circumcision with baptism, and so, it is argued, establishes that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant.

Also, it is argued, the household baptisms recorded in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16) surely included infants. In 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul refers to the children as “holy” or “sanctified” in a marriage where one partner is a believer, which is taken to mean that they are a part of God’s covenant people, presumably through baptism. The church fathers of the second and third centuries argued for infant baptism as an apostolic tradition. Since it is primarily a covenant sign and not a sign of faith on the part of the one receiving it, it is argued that we should baptize our infants into the community of faith where they will be exposed to the other means of grace. These are the main arguments for infant baptism as fairly as I can state them in the time allotted to me.

Why we do not baptize infants:

We do not baptize infants because baptism is a public confession of faith in obedience to Christ.

The clear teaching of Scripture is that all who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord should be baptized in obedience to Him. The New Testament order is always: The preaching of the gospel; faith in the gospel; then, baptism. Never once is there an example of baptism preceding faith as the norm to be followed. And there are no examples or commands concerning the baptism of the infants or yet unbelieving children of believing parents. Consider the following verses from Acts, noting the order of belief first, then baptism:

2:41: ... those who had received his word were baptized; ...

8:12: But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.

8:36-38: And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.

While verse 37 [in brackets] lacks strong textual support in the earliest Greek manuscripts, its insertion in later manuscripts shows what the church held to be the necessary qualification for baptism.

10:44, 46b, 47, 48a: While Peter was still speaking these words [the gospel], the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.... Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

16:30-34: [The Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas] “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household. And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

If any children were baptized that night, the text is clear that they had believed. There is not a shred of support for infant baptism here.

18:8: And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with his whole household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

Thus the abundant testimony of the New Testament is that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ precedes baptism.

What about the argument that infant baptism is the sign of the New Covenant, just as circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (based on Col. 2:11-12)? While there are some parallels between the two signs, there are many differences. The sign of circumcision was administered to the male, physical descendants of Abraham in obedience to the specific command of God. But the New Testament is clear that it is not the physical seed of Abraham who are saved, but the spiritual seed (Rom. 4:16; 9:8; Gal. 3:7). There simply is no command to administer baptism to the physical seed of Christians, male or female. If baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision, then just as circumcision was administered to the physical descendants of Abraham in the age of type, so baptism ought to be administered to the spiritual descendants of Abraham in the age of fulfillment, namely, to believers. But Jesus made it clear that the sign of the New Covenant is the Lord’s Supper, not baptism (“This cup is the new covenant in My blood ...” (1 Cor. 11:25).

Also, note that in Colossians 2 Paul is talking about believer’s baptism. He specifically states that baptism pictures being raised up from spiritual death through faith in the working of God. The parallel between baptism and circumcision concerns the picture of dying to the flesh or old life so that we can live holy lives in Christ. Paul is taking the spiritual meaning of circumcision and applying it spiritually to believers, not physically to the baptism of believers’ children.

In 1 Peter 3:20-21, Peter makes it clear that he is not referring to the physical act of baptism, but to what it symbolizes, namely, appealing to God for a good conscience, which infants who are baptized are not doing! In 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Paul is applying the experiences of Israel spiritually to the church. Just as not all who came through the “baptism” of the Red Sea were right with God in their hearts, as evidenced by their unbelief and immorality, so not all who profess faith in Christ through baptism are necessarily regenerate. If the Corinthians think that they can claim that their profession of faith in baptism made them right with God, but continue in their ungodly living, they are greatly deceived. The text does not support infant baptism in any way; it’s just not there.

Beyond this, we can argue that infant baptism is potentially detrimental. If an adult mistakenly assumes (as it would be most easy to do if brought up under this teaching) that because he was baptized as an infant, he possesses salvation and is a member of Christ’s church, then he is sadly deceived on the most important issue of all, eternal salvation! There is no grace imparted in the physical act of baptism, apart from the faith of the one being baptized. To count on one’s baptism, whether as an infant or an adult, as the basis for standing before God is to trust in a false hope. Only personal faith in the crucified and risen Savior saves a person from sin and hell. And to baptize an infant is to rob the person of a very meaningful spiritual experience, namely, the public confession of Christ in obedience to His command after one has come to saving faith.

The meaning of baptism:

Baptism is a public confession of faith in Christ, done in obedience to His command, and as such is a picture of what salvation means. Baptism is important because Christ commanded it as a part of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). If we neglect baptism, we’re disobeying our Lord. Since true faith always expresses itself in obedience, those who have believed in Christ and have been properly instructed about baptism will obey Christ by being baptized.

1) Baptism is the place where a believer publicly confesses Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and identifies with Christ and His church. In talking of our need to follow Him, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.... For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34, 38). Going forward or walking the aisle is not the biblical way to initially confess Christ publicly; that came into the church through a man of questionable theology and methodology, namely, Charles Finney. Baptism is the biblical way to confess faith in Christ.

The word “baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek word, baptisma, and some related words which have the meaning of dipping or immersing. Since the immersed object became totally identified with the substance in which it was placed, the idea of identification is central to the meaning of baptism. Jesus’ baptism by John publicly identified Him who was sinless with sinners in anticipation of His death and resurrection as their sin-bearer. For us baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection; our identification with Christ’s church; and, our cleansing from sin.

2) Baptism symbolizes total identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:3-4: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Technically, we were “baptized into Christ” through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is the work whereby the Holy Spirit places a person “in Christ” at the moment of salvation. So what Paul refers to in Romans 6 is not water baptism itself, but what it pictures, namely, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At the instant we believed, we became totally identified with Christ. His death became our death, His burial our burial, His resurrection our resurrection. Going under the water symbolizes death to our old way of life; coming up out of the water pictures the beginning of a new life, lived unto God, in Christ’s resurrection power (see also, Col. 2:11-12).

3) Baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ’s church. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul states, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” The main reference here, as in Romans 6, is to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, when He places the believer in Christ at the moment of salvation. We become members of His body, the church. Water baptism symbolizes our identification with the church which took place spiritually at the moment of salvation. In the act of baptism, a person publicly identifies himself with other Christians. He is saying, “Now I’m one of them.”

In our culture, with religious tolerance, water baptism isn’t too threatening. But in countries where Christians are persecuted, baptism separates the true believers from the phonies. You open yourself to persecution by being baptized. But even if we don’t risk persecution, baptism should represent that sort of bold, public identification with the church.

4) Baptism symbolizes cleansing from sin. This is the point of 1 Peter 3:18-21 plus several other Scriptures. Cleansing is obviously a main symbol of water. But it is not immersion in water (or sprinkling, pouring) that cleanses the heart. Peter makes that very clear. Water can only remove dirt from the flesh. It is the blood of Christ which removes the filth from our hearts, because apart from the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).

Because baptism is done with water, and water symbolizes cleansing, it is often mentioned in close connection with salvation. In Titus 3:5, Paul refers to God’s saving us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” But in the immediately preceding words he says that God saved us “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.” The act of baptism cannot save anyone.

The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that salvation is by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). Both Romans and Galatians deal extensively with the theme that we are justified (declared righteous by God) through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any works of righteousness. Many Scriptures affirm what Jesus stated, “... he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). He told the dying thief on the cross, who called out to Him in faith, that he would be with Him that very day in Paradise (Luke 23:39-43). Obviously, the man was not baptized.

At the same time, Scripture is clear that genuine saving faith results in obedience (Eph. 2:10; 2 Thess. 1:8, “obey the gospel”). Thus every true believer who is properly taught and who has opportunity will be baptized in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. But baptism is the result of salvation, not the means to it.

Immersion, sprinkling, and pouring are three common modes. Some who practice immersion do it three times forward (once for each person of the trinity). I don’t believe that the mode of baptism should be an issue worth dividing over.

But immersion is the meaning of the Greek word; it best represents the biblical truths symbolized by baptism; and, it was the method used in the early church. Immersion best represents the truth of total identification with Christ that baptism symbolizes. When the believer goes into the water, it pictures death (separation) to his old way of life. When he comes out of the water, it speaks of the fact that now he is raised to newness of life in Christ. Immersion also pictures total cleansing from sin. While it ought to be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), there is no indication that it requires three separate immersions. Once under better symbolizes the fact that we are placed into Christ once and for all by the Holy Spirit.


When Cortez landed at Vera Cruz in 1519 to begin his conquest of Mexico with a force of only 700 men, he purposely set fire to his fleet of 11 ships. His men on the shore watched their only means of retreat sinking to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. With no means of retreat, there was only one direction to move, forward into the Mexican interior to meet whatever might come their way.

Some of you may have put your trust in Christ, but you’re leaving your ship anchored safely in the harbor in case you decide to retreat. Baptism should be that act of setting fire to the ship. It’s a graphic reminder that you have left the old life and now are committed to go ahead with Christ. If you know Christ as your Savior but you’ve never been baptized, I urge you to do so as a confession of your faith in obedience to Christ’s command as soon as possible.

If you’ve never trusted in Christ as Savior, I hope that you will not think that because you have been baptized or that if you will get baptized, it will get you into heaven. Eternal life is the free gift God offers you based upon Christ’s death on your behalf. You can only receive it by faith in God’s promise in Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should believers’ baptism be a requirement for church membership? Why/why not?
  2. Should a person who was baptized as an infant be re-baptized when he comes to faith in Christ? What Scriptures apply?
  3. How should our view of baptism affect our daily lives?
  4. After professing faith in Christ, how long should a person wait to be baptized?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Baptism, Ecclesiology (The Church), Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 36: God’s Sovereignty, Our Responsibility (Genesis 17:1-27)

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A newspaper ran the following correction: “The title of a First Christian Church program in last week’s paper was written as ‘Our God Resigns.’ The actual title is ‘Our God Reigns.’” (Reader’s Digest, 9/93, p. 53.)

Due to the prevalence of man-centered theology in our day, many Christians live as though God must have resigned as the Ruler of the universe. While no sincere Christian would come out and say such, many Christians practically deny the absolute sovereignty of God. For example, I was at a funeral where the pastor, no doubt trying to comfort those who were grieving, assured us that God had not caused this tragic accident. Perhaps he was trying to draw a fine distinction between God’s causing something and His permitting it. But I didn’t find his words very comforting. If God did not ultimately cause it, then who did? If Satan caused it against God’s will, then Satan has equal or greater power than God, which isn’t a comforting thought! If the accident was due to human free will, we must ask, “Did that free will somehow thwart God’s plan?” If so, then man, not God, is sovereign, which again is not very comforting. Either our God resigns, or He reigns.

But many Christians are afraid to affirm the absolute sovereignty of God because they think it then follows that men do not have free will and that God is then responsible for evil. They explain God’s sovereignty by saying that He simply foreknew what would happen (because knows everything in advance), but He did not predetermine or ordain everything. But this makes man sovereign, because it makes God’s plan for the ages depend on what man would do, not on what God determined in advance to do.

The Bible clearly affirms the absolute, total sovereignty of God over His creation, His absolute holiness, and, at the same time, the full responsibility of human beings as moral agents under God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are true and true at the same time, but God’s sovereignty is the basis for everything else, and must therefore take supremacy and never be diminished in order to affirm human responsibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith (III:1) strikes the balance this way:

God, from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Scripture clearly affirms that God works all things after the counsel of His will, not man’s will (Eph. 1:11). At the same time and because God is sovereign, men are responsible to obey Him and submit to His sovereignty. So a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty is essential for proper obedience to Him.

We see both truths clearly in Genesis 17. Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God appears to Abram and says: “I am God Almighty [“El Shaddai”]; Walk before Me and be blameless” (17:1). God is sovereign; man is responsible to obey Him. Then God clearly spells out what He will do with and for Abraham (17:2-8). There isn’t much human free will or room for debate in these verses! God doesn’t ask Abram’s opinion, even on the personal matter of changing the 99-year-old man’s name! He simply announces, “This is the way it’s going to be; this is what I’m going to do.” Period!

There follows another command (17:9), reflecting Abraham’s responsibility to keep God’s covenant. This is followed by more divine pronouncements about what is going to happen. God changes Sarai’s name, He tells Abraham that He will give him a son by her and make her the mother of nations. When Abraham asks that Ishmael, his son by Hagar, might be God’s chosen one, God denies the request, while still assenting to bless Ishmael. But God sovereignly chooses to establish His covenant with Isaac (17:21). The chapter ends with Abraham’s obedience to God, as he and all the males in his household are circumcised. So the two major themes of this chapter are: (1) God will accomplish His sovereign purpose; (2) God’s people are responsible to keep His covenant with them. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, both in the same context. But God’s sovereignty is clearly the supreme factor, undergirding everything. We see that ...

Because God is absolutely sovereign, we must walk in obedience before Him, no matter how difficult.

1. God is absolutely sovereign.

The Bible starts with God, not with man: “In the beginning, God ...” (Gen. 1:1). Who God is has definite implications for how we should live. Here God appears to Abram and announces, “I am El Shaddai [God Almighty].” This is the first of 48 uses of this name for God in the Old Testament (31 times in Job). Though there is debate among Hebrew scholars, it probably comes from a word meaning “mountain,” thus pointing to God’s strength and stability. The Septuagint (200 B.C.) and the Latin Vulgate translated it, “all-powerful.” In the context of Genesis 17, God is clearly the sovereign One, telling Abram what He as God is going to do and how He expects Abram to obey. This name points to God as the One who has the power to carry out His purposes and promises. Abram’s response of falling on his face before God (17:3, 17) shows that Abram knew who is Lord and who is not!

God’s sovereignty is fundamental to His very nature as God. A non-sovereign God isn’t God at all. R. C. Sproul was once teaching on this. He began the class by reading from the part of the Westminster Confession I cited above, “God, from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” He stopped at this point and asked, “Is there anyone in this room who does not believe the words that I just read?” Many hands went up. He then asked, “Are there any convinced atheists in the room?” No hands were raised. He then said, “Everyone who raised his hand to the first question should also have raised his hand to the second question.” He went on to argue that if there is a single molecule in the universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. That one maverick molecule could perhaps lay waste all of God’s plans and promises toward us. He concluded, “Without sovereignty God cannot be God” (Chosen By God [Tyndale], pp. 25-27).

A. God’s sovereignty means that He initiates, follows through, and fulfills His purpose in His timing and way.

Note the authoritative manner in which God tells Abram what is going to happen. He repeatedly states, “I will,” and “you shall” (17:2-8). God doesn’t dicker or feel Abram out for his opinion. God announces, God commands, God reveals what He has already determined to do. Abram did not set up this interview and he didn’t determine when it would end. God appears without being summoned, tells Abram what is going to happen, and (17:22), “when He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.” God’s sovereignty means that God, not man, determines the course of human history and works it out in His time-table and way, not ours.

God’s sovereignty extends over the salvation of men. It is here that many people stumble. They think that God is not fair if He saves some and not others. But Scripture is quite clear that it is God and not men who sovereignly determines who will be saved. We have already seen how God sovereignly chose Abram when he was dwelling in Ur of the Chaldees, living as a pagan. God did not choose Abram’s countrymen or neighbors. He did not choose Abram’s father or brothers. He chose Abram. Here God tells Abram that while He will bless Ishmael and his descendants in a material and temporal way, His covenant will be established with Isaac (17:20-21).

Was God unfair to Ishmael? Is He unfair to anyone who is not chosen to salvation? Only if Ishmael and those not chosen deserve to be saved. If anyone deserves to be saved and God does not save him, God is most unfair. But if all deserve His judgment and He sovereignly chooses to save some, that is His prerogative as God. As Paul argues in Romans 9:19-23, we who are clay dare not challenge the Potter’s sovereign right to do as He pleases with what He has made. Those not chosen for salvation get precisely what they deserve, namely, God’s justice. But God is not unfair to any by showing mercy to some. In fact, if God had not chosen certain ones unto salvation, none could ever be saved, because the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14, italics mine).

Why do I emphasize this? It’s not just an abstract theological point that’s interesting to debate. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is important for a proper understanding of salvation. If you think that you are responsible for your own salvation, whether through your good deeds, your free will, or your faith, you will not despair of yourself and cast your hopeless self upon the sovereign mercy of God. But if you come to the end of yourself and realize that there is nothing in you deserving of God’s salvation, then, with the tax collector in Jesus’ story, you cry out in desperation, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). It is then that you are saved.

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is also the foundation for a life of submission and trust, because it humbles our pride and it assures us that God will prevail and that those who oppose Him will ultimately lose. It’s at the heart of all Christian service, because it assures us that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. It enables us to endure trials and to wait upon God, even as Abraham did, because we know that in God’s perfect time, He will do what He has promised, even if we are persecuted or suffer and die. Thus God’s sovereignty means that He initiates, follows through, and fulfills His purpose in His timing and way, as seen here in His dealings with Abraham.

But, why did God make Abraham wait so long before He gave him Isaac? Why wouldn’t God let Ishmael do?

B. God’s sovereignty means that He gets all the glory and man gets none.

Abraham’s response in verse 18 shows that by this time, he was quite content with Ishmael as the promised son. In these 13 years, Abraham had grown quite attached to the boy, in spite of the jealousy between Sarah and Hagar. But God definitely rejects Ishmael and states that Sarah will bear Abraham a son and that this son will be the one with whom God will establish His covenant.

Why not Ishmael? Because Ishmael represented man’s effort helping God out (Gal. 4:29). In Ishmael, Abram could boast, because he was able to produce a son. But by the time Isaac came along, both Abraham and Sarah were humanly beyond their ability to reproduce. They could take none of the credit. All the glory went to God. God’s delay with Abraham and Sarah brought them to the end of themselves so that His grace got all the credit. If our proud flesh can grab any glory for itself, it will. That’s why God waits until we come to the end of ourselves.

Again, this is true of salvation. If we think that we can contribute anything to our own salvation, we’ll take the credit. If we think we came to Christ by our own free will, we’ll boast in our wise choice. If we think it was by our faith, we’ll boast in our great faith. If we think it was by our rational ability, we’ll boast in our great intellect. But if our salvation depends solely on God’s sovereign election, and if God chose those who were foolish, weak, and despised, then no man can boast before God (1 Cor. 1:27-31).

We struggle with the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty because it kills the flesh. We can’t take any credit for our salvation if it is totally of God and not at all from us. By the flesh, we can produce an Ishmael, and it’s good enough for us. But God doesn’t work that way. He wants to bring us all to the end of ourselves, and then He gives us Isaac as a free gift, so that we bow before Him, lost in wonder, even as Abraham laughed in astonishment at what God was going to do (17:17). The only way to come to terms with God’s sovereignty is to submit and let God be God.

But does this mean that we then kick back passively and do nothing? Not at all. A proper understanding of God’s sovereignty should motivate us to walk in obedience:

2. We are responsible to walk in obedience before Him, no matter how difficult.


It is because He is God Almighty that we are to walk before Him and be blameless (17:1). It is because He has sovereignly established His covenant and because He will carry it out that we are to keep His covenant (17:2-9). Note two things:

A. We are responsible to walk obediently.

Verse 1 may be translated, “Walk before Me and you shall be blameless.” Blameless does not mean perfection, which no believer attains in this life. This word is used to describe both Noah (Gen. 6:9) and Job (Job 1:8), yet neither man was sinlessly perfect. The meaning of the word is “whole,” or “having integrity.” It refers to a person who walks honestly and openly before God, who fears God and seeks to obey Him, and who confesses and turns away from sin. The word “walk” implies a step by step process. A walk is not spectacular and not a quick fix. But if you keep walking in the same direction, eventually you will get where you’re going. For the believer, that direction is holiness.

Sometimes, frankly, obedience is a struggle. If Abraham struggled over God’s rejection of Ishmael, there is no word in Scripture. And if he struggled over the command to be circumcised, there is not a hint of it here. His obedience was thorough and instant (17:23, 26). But it wasn’t easy.

B. We are responsible to obey even when it’s not easy.

There are several difficult things in this story that Abraham had to submit to. First was his name change. It was hard enough to be named “Exalted Father” (Abram) when he didn’t have any children. But at least with the birth of Ishmael the sting was mitigated. But now, before the birth of Isaac, God tells the 99-year-old Abram that he gets a new name: “Father of a Multitude” (Abraham)! If his name was an embarrassment before, what now? It would be like a totally bald man named Harry whom God told, “Now you’re going to be called, Bushy-headed Harry.” Abraham would have been the butt of every joke around!

Then there was this matter of circumcision. And it wasn’t just a private matter that Abraham could take care of behind closed doors. He had to do it to every male in his extended household! It wasn’t just the excruciating physical pain that was difficult to endure. This rite permanently disfigured a man at the place of his virility, where he would most want to blend in with everyone else. Why couldn’t God just make the sign of the covenant be a tattoo on the arm or an earring or something?

By submitting to God’s command for circumcision, Abraham was yielding his procreative powers totally to God. He was acknowledging his total dependence on God to produce the promised heir. It meant Abraham’s putting no confidence in his flesh, but rather trusting God totally to do what He promised to do so that all the glory goes to Him.

In the case of the men who followed Abraham, circumcision pictured the importance of sexual purity in obedience to God. It set the Hebrews apart, so that if a Hebrew young man decided to have sexual relations with a pagan woman, she couldn’t help noticing that he was different. At that point, he would be reminded that he belonged to the living God, and he would be faced with a rather awkward witnessing situation!

The application is, obedience to God is often difficult, and it sets you apart as distinct from our wicked culture, so that you may become the object of ridicule. But because our God is the sovereign God, the God who has chosen us and entered into His covenant with us, we are responsible to obey Him, even when it is difficult or embarrassing.


I believe that a major cause of the worldliness and impurity that permeates the modern evangelical church is that we have a watered-down view of the sovereignty and supremacy of our God. It was when Abraham had this vision of God as God Almighty, who sovereignly gives and keeps His covenant with a man who had messed up as often as Abraham had, that he obeyed without question. Recovering a proper vision of the Sovereign God is the basis for obedience, even when it’s not easy.

Pastor John Piper tells of a time when he felt impressed to preach on God’s greatness as revealed in Isaiah 6. Normally he would have tried to apply the text, but on this Sunday, he simply tried to lift up and display the majesty and glory of God, without a word of application. He did not realize that one of the young families in his church had just discovered that their child was being sexually abused by a close relative. They were there that Sunday and heard his message.

Piper says that many advisors to us pastors would have said, “Pastor Piper, can’t you see that your people are hurting? Can’t you come down out of the heavens and get practical? Don’t you realize what kind of people sit in front of you on Sunday?” Some weeks later he learned the story. The husband took him aside after a service and said, “John, these have been the hardest months of our lives. Do you know what has gotten me through? The vision of the greatness of God’s holiness that you gave me the first week in January. It has been the rock we could stand on.”

Piper concludes, “The greatness and glory of God are relevant. It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace. That is the deepest need. Our people are starving for God.” (The Supremacy of God in Preaching [Baker], pp. 10-11.)

I direct your attention to the Sovereign, Covenant-making, Covenant-keeping God. When you see Him as God Almighty, you will be able to join Abraham in walking in obedience before Him, even when it is difficult, as it often is.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the explanation that God’s election is simply due to His foreknowledge not biblically sound?
  2. How can God be absolutely sovereign and yet not responsible for sin and evil?
  3. One popular author says that God has done all He can do to bring all to heaven, and now it’s up to our choice. Why is this not biblically defensible?
  4. Some argue that if God sovereignly predetermines everything, it makes the warnings of Scripture a sham. Your response?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Predestination